Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
► The Andy Warhol Diaries is available on Netflix UK now.
When Joan Didion died in December 2021, a questionnaire she’d done for Interview magazine in 2020 circulated on Twitter. In it, she answers a stock question of Andy Warhol’s, “Why can’t it just be magic all the time?”, with an abrupt and incredulous “What?” Here was distilled evidence of Warhol’s personality – superficial, childlike, faintly dim, certainly unintellectual. He couldn’t connect with a person like Didion on her elevated level: he was, of course, a poser, a starfucker, a phony.
This is the image that The Andy Warhol Diaries, produced by Ryan Murphy and directed by Andrew Rossi, is trying to rehabilitate, and to some degree it succeeds. Andy, or more accurately an AI’s impression of his voice, narrates from beyond the grave his thoughts on being somebody, on being nobody, on money, on love, on the 1982 musical Grease 2. This haunting, staccato voice guides us along, reading from his own diaries, published two years after his death. It sounds like nothing human; it sounds like an elevator speaking. More than finally becoming a machine, I think what Warhol would have liked is getting the last word.
What separates Diaries from the deluge of other Warhol documentaries are its omissions: Edie, the Velvets, the Silver Factory – even his beloved mother Julia Warhola makes only the briefest appearance. The principal focus is on Jed Johnson, an interior designer who lived with Andy for 12 years, and his replacement, Jon Gould, a preppy Paramount executive, who died of Aids at the age of 33. These were intense attachments. The most memorable scenes are those that centre the men who tried, possibly to their own detriment, to love Warhol: Jed’s angelic face, seemingly designed for the camera; Jon, healthy, exercising on a sandy beach.
The Super 8 footage is deeply moving, not only because of its grainy, in-built nostalgia, but because you know what’s coming: the Aids epidemic that will ravage New York, and destroy queer men’s bodies and sense of sexual liberation. No amount of shots of Studio 54 can lessen the mournful tone; everywhere there is the brutal loss of potential. There’s Keith Haring, smiling, at the MTV Movie Awards. Here comes Basquiat, a charismatic force, swaggering to the studio. Both men would be dead before 35.
The problem with The Andy Warhol Diaries is that by zeroing in on Warhol’s vulnerabilities – his scarred chest after the shooting by Valerie Solanas, his sickly, anorexic frame, his faith, his empty house and lonely phone calls, Andy the model, uncertainly navigating a catwalk, his face a mask, as if he too is stunned by his own sudden mediocrity – it suggests that Warhol was feeble or frail. Warhol was strong-willed; simply measure the list of friends and acquaintances he outlived. He did what Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean and even Basquiat could not: he survived the disfigurement of celebrity. Where is the controlling Andy, the pedantic Andy, the manipulative Andy? Most importantly, the survivor Andy?
A number of discomfiting details are disclosed: Jed’s suicide attempts when they were together; the exploitative way he used the trans people he was praised for depicting, paying them very little; the fact that he wasn’t just Basquiat’s friend and mentor, but his landlord. The power imbalance between Basquiat and Warhol is smartly explored but, as in the diaries themselves, there is plenty left unsaid; the frequent evasive blank space. The director John Waters, appearing as a talking head, says that The Factory was like a cult. It’s impossible to get close to Warhol because the people who knew him clam up, sticking to the agreed facts, preserving not only the idea of Warhol but an idea they have of themselves, of their youth.
Is there any doubt that Warhol could feel deep love, and also shame about how he behaved in love, about his sexual proclivities, about his failures? He was Catholic, after all. In that respect, The Andy Warhol Diaries didn’t bring me closer to the man. But does that matter? Really, all that Warhol himself would want to know is – is it a good time, a good movie? And as a six-hour movie, Diaries is sublime: a meditation on queerness, on art, on talent, on the loss of talent, on New York and parties, on friendship, on being a freak, an alien.
Rossi’s visual approach narrows the gap between Warhol’s life and art – the two didn’t exist separately – and the result is both lively and sincere. The soundtrack is suitably fabulous, the faces are perfectly symmetrical, Diana Ross dances in the rain. Why can’t it just be magic like this all the time?