Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 20, 2021 4:07 pm 
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Edward Lachman's elegant record of the Cale-Reed song cycle about Andy Warhol handsomely restored

When John Cale and the late Lou Reed reunited to compose "Songs for Drella" in 1990, three years after the death of Andy Warhol, whom the work describes, cinematographer Edward Lachman filmed them up close performing it. The 55-minute film provides a contemporary record of this musical portrait of the man who played a key role in both men's early careers. Andy adopted their four-person band, The Velvet Underground, and while he did not truly produce their first album, as he's credited as doing, he was responsible for the album's being made. "Drella" is officially a "song cycle," a somewhat Germanic, or medieval, concept, composing a bio-picture of Andy in fifteen songs. As is usual, Cale and Reed perform the cycle continuously, Cale at the keyboards and sometimes viola and Reed standing at a microphone with electric guitar.

Sound is essential here, and the film delivers an intense, forward sound track in which the guitar and keyboard sounds resonate richly, and the voices - Cale and Reed usually alternating from song to song - crisp and present. What about the songs, and the lyrics? You can look them up: just Google "lyrics" and "songs for drella." It is a matter of fact, accurate, and somewhat cruel portrait of Andy Warhol, starting with the title, "Drella," an unflattering combination of "Dracula" and "Cinderella" that Factory Superstar Ondine made up for him, but he did not like.

The songs are of short duration, none more than about four minutes, but there are plenty of lines. They are repetitious, mundane, and flat, mostly not very memorable, and not rhymed. But that is not to say they don't build up a knowing portrait of Andy. Perhaps it's all there, all the essentials anyway. The "smalltown" gay boy who had to get out of Pittsburgh, pimply, pink-skinned, albino-eyed, "gay and fatty," most suited for "getting out of here"; the "open house" policy that led to the Factory full of "superstars" where the emphasis was on "work," "all that matters is work"; the film-making, the fame, the attack by Valerie Solanis that nearly killed Andy and permanently damaged him. His relation to Lou Reed and John Cale is mentioned too, in two of the songs.

It's an insider's view. Mostly chronological, a lot, but not all, is from the personal point of view of Andy, though it's a general picture. There are also "third-person narratives chronicling events and affairs, and first-person commentaries on Warhol by Reed and Cale themselves." (I quote Wikipedia.) There is a great deal of personal detail that isn't here, not even mentioned - like Warhol's rather intense friendship with Jean-Michel Basquiat, extensively chronicled by journals and photographs in a recent book, the 2019 Taschen Warhol on Basquiat.

It would be nice if Julian Schnabel would do a film serio-chronically dramatizing the life of Andy Warhol like his 1996 Basquiat; but that was twenty-five years ago and is a miracle not likely to happen again. Certainly you can't tell the whole story of Andy Warhol, one of the most influential and famous artists of the 20th century, in fifteen songs in fifty-five minutes. That's not the point. Songs for Drella an idiosyncratic, sketchy portrait in songs. The singing is just chanting, but the music, sometimes, soars. And Edward Lachman's film is impeccable. Its sound is great, and it uses images, apart from those of the performers, sparingly but effectively. It's a chamber piece, a gem. Now, a 4K restoration of it has been made, and that is on its way to the public, thirty years later, more interesting than ever, with Lou Reed, who died eight years ago from liver disease, no longer with us, at Film Forum, where it is presented along with Todd Haynes' superb new documentary about the seminal Reed-Cale band, The Velvet Underground. No doubt the new format of Lachman's film will become more widely available some time soon. At Film Forum Songs for Drella will show as follows.

Friday, October 22 at 5:45
Saturday, October 23 at 5:45
Sunday, October 24 at 5:45
Wednesday, October 27 at 5:45

FRI, SAT, SUN: Followed by a Q&A with Filmmaker Ed Lachman in-person.
WED: Introduced by Restoration Producer Carolyn Hepburn in-person.

(This film is available currently, not in a good copy, but free, on YouTube.)

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