The time seems ripe to revisit Andy Warhol in a big way. The Pop art icon never stopped being a museum fixture, of course, but since his death, US culture has evolved so much toward embodying his sensibility of conscious self-performance and gleefully mixing the commercial with the artistic. (To say nothing of how social media has seemingly fulfilled the not-actually-said-by-him-but-we-printed-the-legend prophecy about everyone getting their 15 minutes of fame.) A suitably large-scale documentary look at Warhol has now come in the form of a miniseries adaptation of his posthumous memoirs, produced by Ryan Murphy and Netflix. But The Andy Warhol Diaries waffles between acting as a primer on the artist and trying to go deeper into his psyche, eliding whole vital swaths of his biography while fixating on other parts of questionable relevance. Split between appealing to novices and art world enthusiasts, it’s difficult to imagine the docuseries fully pleasing either crowd.
In 1976, Warhol began holding daily morning phone calls with his friend Pat Hackett, who would then transcribe their conversations as diary entries. By the time of Warhol’s death in 1987, there were over 20,000 pages of material. Hackett winnowed this down into around 800 pages to publish the diaries in 1989. The miniseries of course frequently quotes the diaries as narration, and the vibe is very different from the usual invocation of a subject’s firsthand memories. Because of the unusual way in which Warhol recorded his diary, working in collaboration with Hackett, his words already have a confessional feeling. He was not musing to himself, but talking to someone else, and it’s then easy to recontextualize these thoughts as a conversation of sorts with the viewer.
This feeling is reinforced by an element which has drawn significant attention ahead of the series’ release. The voiceover is not read by an actor, as has been traditional in films like this such as the James Baldwin documentary I am Not Your Negro. Instead director Andrew Rossi employed an AI company to digitally replicate Warhol’s voice. To avoid any accusation of misleading audiences (such critiques plagued last year’s Anthony Bourdain biography Roadrunner, which deepfaked several audio clips of Bourdain without any indication that it was doing so), the series has multiple clear disclaimers about its use of this technique and that Warhol’s estate granted them permission for it. While the motivation for being so upfront may be a calculation to sidestep negative publicity, it also works almost as a metafictional flourish, the show letting the viewer in on its magic trick. It’s the one truly Warholian gesture in the project. And while we can’t know for sure, it definitely seems like Warhol would be into it. As the series quotes of him: “I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do. I think everybody should be a machine.” I think he would be particularly amused that Netflix’s subtitles always designate the generated dialogue as coming from “AI Andy.”
But beyond is implementation of its voiceover, The Andy Warhol Diaries is a disappointingly standard biographical doc. It has an ethereal, sentimental atmosphere that feels entirely at odds with most of what Warhol stood for, both in his work and in his public proclamations on life and society. To an extent this is obviously deliberate; the series purports to go beyond Warhol’s elaborate public façade, to explore his vulnerabilities, particularly in his tightly guarded personal life. Whole episodes are shaped around his close relationships with Jed Johnson, closeted movie exec Jon Gould, and of course Basquiat. To defy Warhol’s aesthetic when documenting him isn’t necessarily the wrong move; it’s more that Rossi replaces it with no aesthetic at all. Archival footage is deployed exactly as one would expect it to be, in dutiful pace with talking heads. (Some of whom have only a tenuous connection to the subject. Is Rob Lowe really an authority just because he once had a memorable dinner with the man?) There are utterly superfluous snippets of reenactment to illustrate private moments, so brief and vague that it’s not clear why such shots were used when extant footage or photos would have fit.
Warhol himself (or, well, Warhol with the help of AI Andy) does more to engender our sympathy on his own. He confides to us that he feels like a “freak,” or that “I wasn’t very close to anyone, although I guess I wanted to be.” Of course, one shouldn’t forget that it’s possible to read even this as further performance, since it was in fact originally delivered to Hackett as a sort of audience. (And of course, since all this comes from the book, little of what’s presented is actually fresh, especially if one is already a Warhol fan.) If The Andy Warhol Diaries were more conscious of its construction, it could have even used its AI Andy to highlight this possibility, and the difficulty of ever truly getting at the heart of a public figure like this. Unfortunately, it couldn’t muster enough of its namesake’s creativity.
The Andy Warhol Diaries is available to stream on Netflix.