Not much happens in Andy Warhol's screen tests. More portraiture than movie making, each test was shot as a silent three-minute study of someone the legendary artist and provocateur found interesting. An action-packed test might involve drinking a soda. For the most part, subjects looked quietly into the camera's unblinking eye.
It's challenging cinema for Dean Wareham of the indie rock act Dean & Britta and a former member of the late, great Luna and Galaxy 500.
Dean & Britta will provide musical accompaniment for selected screen tests Saturday at the Sacred Heart Cultural Center. The event is part of the Westobou Festival.
Commissioned in 2008 to put together a performance based on 13 of the screen tests, Wareham began by scrupulously researching tests shot between 1964 and 1966 at Warhol's New York City studio/clubhouse/creative collective, the Factory. His first cut narrowed more than 400 tests to approximately 150. He then narrowed those down to 40, which he took home to his wife and musical partner, Britta Phillips.
"The only instruction we really received was that we choose 13," Wareham said in a recent telephone interview. "The title was the only thing that was really set."
Ben Harrison, the curator of performance at the Andy Warhol Museum, explained that Warhol had originally shown the screen tests in series of 13. He said that the number of films used wasn't the only nod to Warhol the museum brought to the project. Granting Dean & Britta autonomy was also the way Warhol would have worked.
"We knew that we didn't want to be heavy-handed about it," he said. "Warhol was always hands-off in his direction. We wanted to honor that."
Wareham and Phillips narrowed the list to 13 figures linked by their connection to the Factory. Wareham explained that the personalities chosen, who include revolutionary rocker Lou Reed, Hollywood iconoclast Dennis Hopper and subculture socialite Edie Sedgwick, were all Factory fixtures during the period the tests were filmed.
Most of the music is original composition, although a Velvet Underground rarity and a Bob Dylan song are included. Wareham said that because the screen tests, which were originally about three minutes long and have been slowed to four, are so spare there's a lot of room for a musical act to fill in gaps and focus attention on the smallest details.
"It's funny, because I'm still seeing things I've never noticed, but they are a challenge," he said. "You really have to relax with these films. I think the music probably helps. In a lot of ways, it provides the narrative."
Harrison said Dean & Britta were chosen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a spiritual and sonic bond to the Velvet Underground, the Factory's influential house band.
Like the Velvet Underground, Wareham is known for writing songs that employ both classic rock structure and artful discordance.
"I had great respect for Dean & Britta, great respect for the music," he said. "And there is that connection to the Velvet Underground. But in talking to Dean, I found that he was also someone that was going to take this very seriously."
"It's certainly what drew me to Warhol," Wareham said. "Who knows how rock history might have developed without that band. But when it came to this, to the process of scoring, we had to push that all out. It's about the film."
Harrison said it is that attitude, that desire to honor the imagery that makes 13 Most Beautiful a success. He said Wareham was capable of re-creating a chaotic Warhol happening but instead opted for a performance remarkable in its restraint.
"None of us wanted a loud band playing while the tests were projected over them. We didn't want an Exploding Plastic Inevitable (a legendary Velvet Underground/Andy Warhol performance art piece). We saw this as a theater production, a theater production with live music."
In addition to the 13 Most Beautiful performance, Dean & Britta will conclude the concert with a set of songs culled from Wareham's Galaxy 500 catalog. Wareham, who has been touring with the Galaxy set, said rediscovering the songs written by a much younger version of himself has been a fascinating and ultimately rewarding experience.
"It's exciting, as a performer, to revisit a song that you wrote 20 years ago," he said. "Particularly songs like these that you had a real emotional connection to. It's like going back in time. It's funny, because you write a love song for someone and then later it all comes crashing down. The love doesn't survive, but the song does."
Reach Steven Uhles at firstname.lastname@example.org.