Nico, 1988 lays bare the ravaged body and brooding soul of a woman who may yet be remembered as among the most iconic musicians of the twentieth century.
Nico, 1988, written and directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Peg Aloi
French filmmaker Philippe Garrell had a long-term, and somewhat tumultuous, relationship with the iconic singer Nico, AKA Christa Pfäffgen. She appeared in a number of his films in the ’70s. His 1991 quasi-biopic J’entends plus la guitar (winner of the Silver Lion award in Venice) presents a somewhat camouflaged version of the former Velvet Underground singer (whose collaboration with Lou Reed, which was produced by Andy Warhol, turned out to be lightning in a bottle, more an artistic happening than a mere record). Garrel’s film, set in 1968, depicts the singer as a young French woman in a passionate but volatile relationship with her lover. She introduces him to heroin and slowly drags them both downwards. The film was shown at the Harvard Film Archive and introduced by Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege in a wonderful program arranged by then-curator (and ubiquitous Boston film critic, now for The Arts Fuse) Gerald Peary.
In her introduction to the film, the actress told a story of asking Garrel, famous for his low budget productions, where he had stored her costumes for the film. His reply was that Miss ter Steege should wear whatever she brought with her. She knew that her wardrobe, mainly white jeans and pastel colors, were all wrong for the character, so she got permission to leave the set and go home to Holland to retrieve some more appropriate togs to complete her character’s look, including kohl-rimmed eyes and unwashed hair.
Nico, 1988 is Susanna Nicchiarelli’s compelling and down-to-earth glimpse at a middle-aged Christa, a.k.a. Nico, who is played with astonishing intensity by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm. The costumes worn by this aging ’60s icon are revelatory: despite their seeming casual plainness, they contain subtle psychological clues. Christa is always wearing at least one small piece of shimmery fabric: a multi-colored scarf with metallic thread, a brocade kimono with gold satin sleeves, a beaded belt over her jeans. These are homages to the lingering incandescence of Nico’s earlier, famous persona, which clings to her despite her attempts to redefine her artistry and music as something much larger and deeper than the handful of songs produced during her brief fling with stardom in the ’60s. Unfortunately, the flickers of soulful brilliance in her singing are tarnished by the demons of drug addiction and dashed dreams.
We see Christa two years prior to her death in 1988, on tour in Europe from her home base in dreary Manchester, England (she tells Richard, her manager, that the city reminds her of Berlin after it was bombed). Richard (John Gordon Sinclair) treats her tenderly, despite her self-destructive drug use and her tendency to lose her temper on stage. The manager’s longing gazes at Nico when they’re discussing the logistics of the tour makes it clear he will continue to look the other way every time she inserts a needle into her ankle. “You can leave if this bothers you” she tells him as Richard watches her unzip her ubiquitous leather boots. The musicians in her band are well aware of her habit; indeed, half of them also partake, causing problems on the tour and generally creating an atmosphere of compulsive dread, since we know this story ends with Nico’s premature death at the age of 49.
At times, the film has the feel of dreamy documentary. Snippets of archival looking footage are inserted into the action when she is high or during moments of creative intensity — mostly of Nico in 1967 performing under hotly colored stage lights. The publicity portions of her tour come off as grueling, with Nico dismissive of radio journalists who insist on talking about her time with the Velvet Underground or her personal scandals, instead of her more recent material. Various bumps and barriers pop up on the tour, such as an Italian booker with “cash flow problems” who puts up half the entourage in an overcrowded bedroom in his home instead of at the promised hotel. There is a clandestine (and doomed) concert arranged in Czechoslovakia. The moment after the musicians’ tour van successfully passes muster with the border guards the major concern of all is how to obtain heroin. The show is shut down after one song by the authorities after Nico, sweating and shaky from withdrawal, gives a jaw-dropping performance. The Czech fans give off a nostalgic vibe; there are people who can’t stop worshipping the heyday of Nico’s Velvet Underground days, their enthralled idolization all the more intense because it is forbidden. Clearly, Nico struggled to escape her counterculture fame, even though it was that reputation that brought people to hear her decades later.
Nico carries around a portable tape recorder, often recording snippets of sound. She tells us she is constantly trying to find a sound from her childhood: an eerie silence punctured by far away explosions — when Berlin was being bombed during the war. Short scenes dramatizing her childhood reveal a little girl fascinated by beauty and nature. Her inscrutable inner emotional life challenges men, who seem to find her hard surface alluring. And then, there’s her singing, reproduced with flawless and subtle precision by Dyrholm, whose tour de force performance holds together this somewhat meandering, yet consistently intriguing, film. Throaty, occasionally off-key, strident then soft, these masterful concert performances are the film’s most powerful revelations of a mysterious and apparently much-misunderstood performer. Nico, 1988 lays bare the ravaged body and brooding soul of a woman who may yet be remembered as among the most iconic musicians of the twentieth century.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.