Like many great artists, Andy Warhol was a paradox of sorts. A child of impoverished immigrants, he grew up fraught with insecurities and fears. He was frail, painfully shy and ashamed about his physical appearance. And yet Andy Warhol came to dominate the Pop art movement of the 1960s. Inspired by crass commercialism and the cult of celebrity, his works revolutionized art and made him nothing short of a cultural icon. The different worlds of this enigmatic man are explored in Ric Burns' excellent Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film.
Part of PBS' "American Masters" series, this two-part documentary lets the narrative of Warhol's life unfold leisurely and with straightforward elegance. Ric Burns, brother of renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, employs the standard tools of the trade, interweaving a gaggle of interviews with Warhol's home movies and other little-seen archival footage. And at four hours, the film never lags or grows dull.
Love or hate the art of Andy Warhol, there is no denying the groundbreaking impact his paintings, sculptures, prints and films had on art and the larger popular culture. While Burns presents a comprehensive view of his subject's personal life, he is especially effective at explaining Warhol's place in modern art. Viewers with only a cursory knowledge of the artist's most famous works (the Campbell's soup cans, the Marilyn portraits, etc.) receive an informative and entertaining analysis of what made them, and Warhol, so unique and important. To that end, the documentary elicits great -- if pretentious -- insights from a host of scholars, including George Plimpton, writer Wayne Koestenbaum, art critic Dave Hickey and Warhol biographer John Richardson.
The first half of Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, titled "Raggedy Andy," spans from the artist's 1928 birth in the Slavic ghetto of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (born Andy Warhola) to his early successes as a draftsman and graphic artist in New York City. A sickly child who suffered from St. Vitus Dance, the boy often accompanied his mother Julia to church. It is there he was inundated by the image of an ornate gold iconostasis that showcased portraits of various saints. Such iconic figures would make their way into much of his later work, particularly his silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and others.
Warhol's tireless productivity is seen by filmmaker Burns as a sort of therapy. After all, the artist was often paralyzed by self-loathing. Insecure about his homosexuality and detesting his physicality -- he harbored a pathological revulsion to being touched -- Warhol transcended his own neuroses through total commitment to his work. "It would be really nice to be Lana Turner," Koestenbaum observes, "and art let him do that." In fact the film makes a convincing case that Warhol's public persona from the mid-Sixties onward -- aloof, superficial, almost defiantly weird -- was itself a kind of artistic creation.
The documentary's second half, "Drella," spotlights the Andy Warhol persona who emerged from the "Factory," his infamous Sixties-era New York studio at 241 East 47th Street, where he surrounded himself with everyone from A-list celebrities to flower children, pimps and drag queens. While this incarnation of Warhol is likely to be more familiar to today's viewers, it is as fascinating as the documentary's first section. Here we follow Warhol's patronizing of the avant-garde rock band, the Velvet Underground, as well as his manipulative and ill-fated attempt to latch on to the star of heiress Edie Sedgwick.
Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film also details Warhol's immersion in underground cinema, an obsession that led to such peculiar Warhol-directed experiments as 1963's The Kiss, 1964's Empire and 1966's three-hours-plus opus, Chelsea Girls. Burns might be at his most undeservedly adulatory in this section. Having been subjected to several Warhol films of that period, this reviewer is hard-pressed to appreciate the revelation in watching a man sleep for several hours (as was the focus of the aptly titled Sleep). Oddly, Burns virtually ignores several cutting-edge flicks that Warhol would go on to produce (Bad and Trash being the most notable).
But the documentary is more than a tutorial on Warhol's life. It is also rich with drama. On June 3, 1968, Warhol was shot and seriously wounded by a onetime hanger-on at the Factory, Valerie Solanas. As the founder and sole member of the Society for Cutting Up Men (otherwise known as S.C.U.M.), Solanas had blamed Warhol for her failure as a playwright. Burns paints a vivid, riveting picture of the period leading up to the shooting. It is as suspenseful as any work of fiction.
Like Andy Warhol, Ric Burns is not above a little affectation. A voiceover narration by musician Laurie Anderson is pinched almost to the point of parody. Similarly, the movie's use of Philip Glass-styled music is occasionally a bit much. Still, it all works in the end. A motion picture that is both substantive and expertly crafted, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film is an extraordinary achievement.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film boasts excellent picture quality. Archival footage is largely well-preserved. Color footage shot by the filmmakers is sharp and detailed.
In Dolby Digital 2.0, the audio track is good and without any drop-off or other notable problems.
Not a whisper of supplemental material is to be found here. In an ideal world, the DVD might include a few of Warhol's short films or news coverage of him. Still, such omissions are more than forgiven by the documentary's generous four-hour running time.
Well worth seeing. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film is a fitting portrait of one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Perhaps the most succinct words on the subject belong to art dealer and Warhol confidante Irving Blum, among those interviewed by filmmaker Ric Burns. "The artists that affect change, real change, are so few and far between," Blum says. "They contribute so much to the culture. They are the culture."