Film Review: Nico, 1988
Directed by: Susanna Nicchiarelli
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This is not the film for anyone hoping to recapture the rapture of the glamorous days of the late 60’s art and music worlds of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Velvet Underground. Rather this raw and gritty biography of German model/singer/songwriter known as Nico (nee: Christa Päffgen), who fronted The Velvet Underground’s first album and was associated with them for ever more. What is less well-known is her life after the Velvets as she continued on with her music as a solo performer, albeit with much less attention. This film opens 20 years later in 1987 and Nico is living in Manchester and being interviewed about a tour she is about to begin.
When asked why she decided to live in Manchester, her reply that it reminds her of Berlin after the war, sets the tenor for this current version of Nico (Trine Dryholm) who now prefers to be known by her given name Christa. No longer, the svelte sultry beauty of her Nico days, she comes off as a casualty of that era, looking every bit the worse for wear. She claims she does not mind her lost beauty as she was not happy then.(Not that she seems happy now) She is constantly trying to counter her former persona and be taken seriously as a musician in her own right. And there is a certain downbeat nobility in the scruffiness of her new circumstances and her band of junkies, which includes herself.
The band and her ad hoc manager, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair) are embarking on a tour of Communist block cities. It suits her musical style which is intense, dark and strange. She has a sepulchral voice which is the main instrument and seems to emanate from some otherworldly place. Her audiences are cultishly devoted and respond ecstatically. Performing is the only time she seems really alive and she really works the crowd like the diva which she is. The tour is phenomenally badly planned and the band is constantly doing things which make things more chaotic. The concert segments are terrific.
At some point she decides to visit her teenage son, Ari (Sandor Funtek), who is in rehab after a near-death drug-related incident. She wants to get him out and bring him with her, as she is wracked with guilt that he was taken from her when he was 4 years old. She was deemed an unfit mother, a fact which she admits was true. He was raised by the grandparents of his father, Alain Delon, who never acknowledged his paternity. To that end she cleans up her act and goes on methadone so she will be deemed acceptable by the authorities. The non-junkie Christa actually begins to enjoy life and is able to reconnect with her son.
Trine Dryholme, who uses her own voice for the original music, gives this troubled and driven artist a lot of humanity and eloquently reveals her pain and early trauma as a child of Germany during WWII. She is such a commanding figure that one never tires of watching her go through her fetishistic rituals like obsessively recording sounds. She is listening for something that “sounds like defeat” after the war. She really inhabits the character and is thoroughly and compellingly watchable. The supporting characters are appropriately quirky and oddball. The 3 years that are the focus is so narrow that the film feels very personal and believable. One could temporarily forget that we are watching a seminal artist who left behind a musical legacy which was way ahead of it’s time. She is simply a complicated human.