Describing their new documentary series, “The Andy Warhol Diaries.” which began streaming March 9, Netflix says, “After he’s shot in 1968, Andy Warhol begins documenting his life and feelings. Those diaries, and this series, reveal the secrets behind his persona.”
Brief, but accurate.
Andy Warhol said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
Maybe, maybe not.
Andy Warhol was an artist in the deepest, truest sense of that term. That is the basic argument put forth in “The Andy Warhol Diaries” as it peels back the many layers of that artistry to reveal the notoriously private Warhol in ways not previously known or seen.
Directed by Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”) and produced by Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”; “American Crime Story”), “The Andy Warhol Diaries” is powerful, moving and utterly unique. The armature on which the series is built is “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” the artist’s first-person chronicle dictated over the phone to Pat Hackett from 1976 until Warhol’s death in 1987.
The six-part series follows Warhol from his childhood in the 1930s through his breakout years in the 1960s when he ruled over a wildly divergent and incredibly gay group of people from his New York City studio, The Factory. The series moves on through the 1970s Studio 54 bustle to his friendship with the Black Brooklyn artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s prior to Warhol’s untimely death in 1987. The Netflix original has pathos, mundanity, introspection, glamour and layer-upon-layer of art. It also has Warhol himself: Rossi uses an AI program to narrate the documentary in Warhol’s voice, which provides yet another imagistic layer to the story.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Warhol trained as an illustrator, and it was his controversial pop art in the late 1950s and early 1960s that leveraged his fame. Warhol’s silkscreen paintings Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) and Marilyn Diptych (1962) and his experimental films Chelsea Girls (1966) were immediately iconic.
Warhol became one of the biggest pop culture names of the 1960s. The Factory was synonymous with celebrity and hipness, thronged with a panoply of cognoscenti that included the intellectual elite as well as drag queens, Hollywood stars, and wealthy patrons of the arts.
At the Factory, Warhol created his own milieu, culling the people who became known as the Warhol superstars from his various acquaintances and friends. Warhol managed and produced the experimental rock band The Velvet Underground, founded Interview magazine and wrote books, including “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Popism: The Warhol Sixties.” Warhol was an out gay man years before the gay liberation movement and Stonewall.
“The Andy Warhol Diaries” is very much a gay story. Early on the series explores what happens to Warhol after he is shot at the Factory in 1968 by “S.C.U.M. Manifesto” author Valerie Solanas. As Warhol recovers from his injuries, he falls deeply in love with Jed Johnson, an interior designer who moved in with him to help him navigate his recovery. Their domesticity is an almost shocking reveal and pulls the viewer into the story to see a Warhol that was not the Warhol of the headlines or even of the movies he made.
One of the central aspects of “The Andy Warhol Diaries” is lifting Warhol from the sexless gayness in which he has been portrayed in previous documentaries and center him definitively as someone who was deeply involved with other men in a series of loving gay relationships.
In addition to his 12 year relationship with Johnson, his subsequent long-term relationship with closeted Paramount executive Jon Gould is explored. And the series ends in his relationship with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom he collaborated and traveled.
That last relationship has been characterized and mischaracterized repeatedly, but here it is defined as a deeply mutual and loving relationship which, while perhaps not sexual, was filled with a charged energy that fueled them both. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at only 27 just a year after Warhol’s sudden death.
Warhol wrote, “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” This is perhaps Rossi’s over-riding mantra in “The Andy Warhol Diaries” — to take the simplest aspects of Warhol’s life and memories and let them bloom on-screen. Rossi interrogates his subject and does not find him wanting. He asks questions that have only been hinted at, such as whether Warhol was asexual (he wasn’t) and whether he was merely a voyeur (more complicated) and if he should have done more during the AIDS crisis (of course).
Rossi also knows that Warhol was renowned for being an unreliable narrator, and so major events are told through those who were involved with Warhol at the time — friends, relatives and others. But Warhol’s voice remains the guiding light and principal tone throughout. In addition to interviews with those who knew Warhol, there are myriad archival features — photos, home movies, news magazine profiles and clips from public access TV and MTV. There are, thankfully, precious few simulations and what few there are, are not too cringeworthy.
Warhol’s renowned introspection and circumspection gets another look here, through his own words. This is a stellar series, which some may find too lengthy, but which seems just right, folding together as it does the disparate worlds of Warhol: personal and private, public and promotional, artistic and other.
Warhol once said, “The idea is not to live forever; it is to create something that will.” “The Andy Warhol Diaries” are proof that he did that, and that those creations remain compelling, engaging and newly exciting 35 years after the Warhol’s death.