Don't go to Chuck Workman's astringent, witty "Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol" expecting to learn what the late archetypal celebrity pop artist was really like. You'll learn that he was adored and admired by his homespun Pennsylvania relatives, that he could be a tightwad and that he was a master at manipulating people. But you're not going to find out what was going on inside him.
"Superstar" is acute at pinpointing Warhol's contributions to art and in evoking his era and his impact upon it, but it would seem that Workman deliberately wants to preserve Warhol as the enigma he always seemed to be. (Warhol could be as maddeningly, amusingly noncommittal at dinner parties as he was in interviews.)
It's as if Workman wants us to wonder whether even those closest to Warhol really knew him or simply aren't talking. Intentionally or otherwise, Workman has come up with a documentary Andy Warhol almost certainly would have loved, one that defines the artist's famous remark about himself: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
From this perspective Workman is actually the ideal chronicler of Warhol, for his zingy quick takes on the artist's paintings and prints and his associates' words about him and his work have much of the punch but also the inescapable superficiality of Workman's Oscar-winning "Precious Images," a brief, swift and incredibly dense collage of a breathtakingly inclusive selection of the most memorable bits and pieces of the movies from the medium's first century. (It is paired with "Superstar" at the Westside Pavilion and Beverly Center Cineplex.)
If this documentary scoots across the surface of Warhol's persona, it may be exactly what its subject deserves. Whatever his importance as an artist, the film seems to confirm Warhol's personal shallowness, his indifference to those around him and, above all, his flair for publicity.
The film tracks Warhol's artistic awakenings in a childhood defined by nervous illnesses to his rise as a commercial artist in New York in the '50s. He came into national view when he knocked down the barrier between fine art and commercial art with such outrageous concepts as his Campbell's Soup can painting and reprocessed photo images of Marilyn Monroe and other cultural icons.
Warhol came into his own in the '60s as a trend-setter and scene-maker, making films as well as paintings and prints at his fabled studio, the Factory. After his recovery from a bullet wound, inflicted on him by a disgruntled hanger-on in 1968, Warhol's creative energy level dropped off and he took up in earnest the pursuit of the "beautiful people," the subjects of his enduringly successful Interview magazine. But, as Workman's film points out, he was again in a highly productive phase when he died during routine gall bladder surgery in 1978.
That Andy Warhol would doubtlessly have been glad that Workman only touches upon this most crucial aspect of his being may be the ultimate comment upon his life and times. Fittingly, "Superstar" (Times-rated Mature because of adult themes) takes its leave by telling us that Warhol once said he "would have love to be reincarnated as a big diamond ring on Elizabeth Taylor's finger."