The Beautiful Ones
Ultracool indie music legends (and happily married couple) Dean & Britta reinvent Andy Warhol's classic Screen Tests
by Scott Macaulay Photography Stefano Giovannini
“We’re very particular about this show,” says singer/songwriter Dean Wareham about 13 Most Beautiful...Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, the multimedia performance that he and Britta Phillips, his wife and creative partner, are bringing to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 6th. “We need a good projector and a screen, although probably Andy Warhol would have just shown it on a sheet!”
The irony of having Warhol’s screen tests — the silent 16mm single-take portraits of Warhol superstars, downtown personalities and underground icons that were originally shown at parties or projected behind the Velvet Underground at Exploding Plastic Inevitable events — shown in a sit-down concert at the Met is not lost on the couple. In fact, Wareham and Phillips say they were a bit daunted when Ben Harrison, the Warhol Museum’s performance curator, called to commission the project. Wareham remembers wondering, “How did we get this job and not a film composer?”
The job — selecting and scoring 13 of the 472 four-minute screen tests and then touring the live film/music event to museums, theaters and festivals across the globe — would seem readymade for the team. Wareham and Phillips’s former band, Luna (they met in 2000 when she auditioned to become the new bass player, and shortly thereafter fell in love) always exhibited a healthy Velvet Underground influence. And, despite protestations to the contrary, they are accomplished film composers, having written for acclaimed directors Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and Olivier Assayas (Clean). Perhaps more aptly, the sleepily handsome Wareham and the striking Phillips, with her blonde tresses and Nico-esque cheekbones, themselves embody a kind of cinematic glamour. Their easy cool gently ushers 13 Most Beautiful into the present day without over-reverence or nostalgia.
We sit in the couple’s Brooklyn loft discussing the project, which, after almost 70 performances, is now approaching its victory lap. A poster for Antonioni’s Blow-Up hangs in the living room, and there’s a pile of music on the floor — Washed Out, War on Drugs, John Maus and, on vinyl and just purchased, Lee Hazlewood’s rare LP, A House Safe for Tigers. Wareham makes tea, Phillips pads around barefoot in Daisy Dukes, and our conversation is low-key. “We’re a little hung over today,” Phillips offers by way of explanation. Their late night included a My Morning Jacket concert at Williamsburg Park, where Wareham joined the band on stage for a version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.”
Cut to five years ago, when Wareham was first approached about the Warhol project. “It was an immediate ‘yes,’ but it was scary," he recalls. "Setting a dead artist’s silent films to music — there was a question of moral rights. Some people were always going to find it objectionable.”
“We tried to absorb as much about Warhol as we could, reading books and watching films,” Phillips says. “And the more we did the more relaxed we were with messing with his stuff. Warhol himself was often, just, ‘Whatever!’”
“Warhol was not afraid to bore people,” continues Wareham. “You could describe the screen tests as both hypnotic and boring. There’s no narrative, and if you’re going to stare at someone for four minutes, your mind is going to wander.”
That’s where the score comes in. “Music makes the experience of watching these images different,” observes Phillips. “It tethers you emotionally. We were trying to make the films feel more alive.”
There’s a natural melancholy that hangs over 13 Most Beautiful — five of the subjects died young. “Some of the biographical facts are so overwhelming,” reflects Wareham. “Like Freddy Herko, the first speed freak casualty of the Factory. He killed himself one month later. He looks haggard, as if he’s been up for days.”
How did Herko’s story affect the music?
“Well, it certainly put it in a minor key, didn’t it?” Wareham says.
“It goes major,” corrects Phillips.
“It does go major in the end,” Wareham admits.
Nico’s screen test finds the German supermodel and deep-voiced chanteuse shifting in her seat, angling her cheekbones towards the light, and then finally rolling up a magazine to use as a telescope. Against her image Phillips sings a coolly heartbreaking cover of one of Nico’s most iconic songs, the Dylan-penned “I’ll Keep It With Mine.”
And then there’s Edie Sedgwick. In her screen test she projects a tremulous, seemingly innocent beauty that Wareham and Phillips have scored to “It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills,” a song written by two friends of theirs about an actress seduced by Hollywood’s false dreams. (“It don’t rain in Beverly Hills / No matter what they say / The pain never washes away.”) “We did the show in Santa Barbara, and we met the man who was Edie’s husband at the time of her death,” says Wareham. “He said it was a strange experience, sitting there and looking at her face. He felt as if she was talking to him through the years.”
What’s next for Dean and Britta? “Having made three Dean & Britta records in a row, we thought we’d do something different,” says Wareham. “So, we’re making solo records, even though I’m playing on hers and she’s playing on mine.”
Living together 24/7, does their artistic collaboration ever become difficult?
“There’s less conflict than there was in Luna, where it was a four-way thing,” Wareham says. “I can say to her, ‘That’s an awful vocal.’ And she’ll say the same to me.”
And given the success of 13 Most Beautiful, what about another music theater piece?
“We’re trying to think of something else like this so we can go to similar venues,” Wareham says.
“But it’s going to have to come organically,” adds Phillips. “How can we do something like this again?”
“I guess the easiest thing to do would be to take an old silent film and score it,” Wareham says.
“Or maybe the work of an artist,” muses Phillips.
“I was thinking about Joseph Cornell and his films,” says Wareham. “But they’re set to music already. If you have any ideas, let me know.”