The woman you see in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s extraordinary Nico, 1988 is not the Nico you know — the icy Teutonic chanteuse who blessed Velvet Underground tunes like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” with her incomparable intercontinental monotone, the model who shows up in La Dolce Vita, the downtown muse who hung with Warhol and hooked up with Jim Morrison. “I’m here with Lou Reed’s femme fatale!” chirps an obnoxiously cheery D.J. during a Manchester radio interview. “Don’t call me that. I don’t like it,” replies the singer (Danish actress Trine Dyrholm) in a world-weary rasp and fixing the man behind the microphone with a world-class death stare.
The year is 1986, two years before the singer will perish after a bike accident in Ibiza. She has no sentimental attachment to the past; asked whether the late Sixties were the best days of her life, her answer is “Well, we did a lot of LSD …” When her manager (John Gordon Sinclair) calls her Nico, she corrects him: Her name is Christa Päffgen. (Nico is a construction; Christa is a person.) The signature blond hair has given way to washed-out brown. “Am I ugly?” she asks him. When he says yes, the lady sighs in relief: “Good, I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.” She still tours, attracting crowds in Scottish bars and Italian plazas, attacking her songs and, on occasion, her band. She wonders why journalists don’t ask about her solo work more. She’s through being your mirror.
Music biopics tend to go cradle-to-grave broad — this is your life, Elvis/Loretta Lynn/N.W.A! — or drill-down narrow, focusing on a specific, usually symbolic period of an artist’s arc in the name of Rosetta Stones and Rosebuds. (See: The Hours and the Times, Jimi: All Is By My Side, Bound for Glory.) Nicchiarelli, an Italian writer-director, goes with impressionistic version of Option B and sets her sights on the last few years of Päffgen’s life, long after the Factory has closed up shop and the final laps are being run. Fans still come out, she can still parlay her fame into getting fancy hotels — sure, she has to sit in with the residency’s local jazz quartet to sing for her supper, whatever — and she can still get rugged, bearded men to fall under her sway. But you wonder why the filmmaker would set her sights on the (self-admitted semi-fictionalized) autumn years instead of the spotlight-glare glory days.
And then it hits you: This is a reclamation. Anyone who witnessed the scenes of the singer circa ’86 in the documentary Nico Icon (1995), leaning into a microphone with haunted eyes and hands clutching a cigarette, formed an opinion of her at odds with the curated imagery of early years — the great German beauty as self-made human ruin. This movie lends depth to the defiance of those sequences, as well as context. Nico isn’t let off the hook here, with her screen counterpart indulging in superdiva behavior, putting her young son in harm’s way (and suffering through his suicide attempt as a young man), screaming at folks, shutting down shows midway through and shooting heroin into scabby ankles.
But she’s also granted an inner life, a sense of who this woman was beneath the mask. She’s not reduced to a live-fast-die-fucked-up cliché, even when the story drops everything into a narrative of late-act sex, drugs and post-rock-and-roll avant-drone vamping. It’s a posthumous gift to Päffgen. Even her death, shown here as Nico leaving her house on a sunny Ibiza day, bike in hand and a colorful door closing behind here, is presented with a sense of grace. Nicchiarelli spares us nothing but still gives her dignity on the way out.
As does Dyrholm, who pours herself into the role with a scary intensity and a lack of self-conscious, look-at-me theatricality. Music biopics can live or die by their central performances; you may love or hate Ray or Walk the Line, to name just two, but you undoubtedly remember Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix’s respective turns in those films. The Danish actor doesn’t go into full-impersonation mode, though she does wonders with that voice, turning that seen-it-all monotone into something capable of being both comic and tragic. Instead, she concentrates on how this woman’s self-destructive charisma kept people around her and chaos around every corner — this is Nico as a black-hole sun, with everyone from her managers to fellow musicians (shout-out to Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days fame, as a long-suffering violinist) revolving around the void.
And just when you think the artist has gotten short shrift in the stage-presence department, Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm drop a bomb on you: A dopesick Nico and her band tearing into “My Heart Is Empty” in Prague and tearing it apart, all cold sweats and white heat. That scene is a showstopper, reminding you the movie is both an open-wound and a celebration before we see her coming back to down to Earth, hard and fast. The singer herself might have hated Nico, 1988‘s insistence on such mythic highs and miserablist lows, if she didn’t just shrug ambivalently at the notion or was simply content to roll her eyes. But Christa Päffgen, the woman who remembered what it was like to see the world as her oyster and Berlin bombed when she was a girl? She would probably have loved it.