NICO, 1988 directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli (Italy/Belgium, 2017)

Nico-1988By common consensus, the career high of Nico (Christa Päffgen b. 16th October 1938 d. 18th July 1988) came in the late 1960s as a Warhol superstar in Chelsea Girls and as the singer of three songs on the The Velvet Underground’s groundbreaking debut album.

While a conventional biopic would have centred on this heady, decadent period, Susanna Nicchiarelli chooses instead to focus on the last three years of Nico’s life. At this point, the artist’s striking looks had declined to the point that she openly conceded that she’d become “a fat junky”.

As the film shows, Nico never stopped being feisty and firey but makes no bones about the fact that the looks which brought her fame had suffered through a life of excess. She is no longer the stunning blonde model whose long list of lovers included cult celebrities like Alain Delon, Brian Jones, John Cale and Jim Morrison.

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Director Susanna Nicchiarelli (left) and Trine Dyrholm 

As such, the de-mytholigizing of the artist seems to be one of the main aims of Nico, 1988. The Italian director sets out to expose the fickleness of fame and, in the process, critiques the way female singers are routinely manipulated by the male dominated music industry.

As this movie illustrates, Nico was destined to be judged in relation to her celebrated 10 minute cameo as a femme fatale with The Velvet Underground for the remainder of her career . Although she released a series of excellent albums over the next two decades, interviewers were always more interested in the details of her links to Warhol and Lou Reed than the background and inspiration behind her solo work.

Lou Reed and Nico in the Studio

Nico, 1965 with Lou Reed – the way most would prefer to remember her.

While she continued to perform live, the film reveals that the venues she played were far from prestigious and the squalid touring conditions were more akin to those of a struggling indie band than that of a musical icon.

The gritty and fairly depressing story portrayed on-screen is based upon interviews Nicchiarelli conducted with Nico’s son Ari and those who worked with her. This included the late Manchester music mogul Alan Wise who was her manager during the three-year period from 1986-88 covered in this film. Wise is played as a dour, reserved yet determined character by John Gordon Sinclair who I last saw many moons ago as the gangling teenager in ‘Gregory’s Girl’.

There’s certainly nothing remotely attractive or glitzy in the way Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Nico. Instead we are presented with a disillusioned, dishevelled, messed up woman whose idea of a gourmet meal is to stuff down a huge plate of spaghetti while guzzling limoncello.

It take a brave actress to uglify herself so completely and while Dyrholm doesn’t look much very like Nico her portrayal seems like an accurate reflection of the singer’s spiritual and physical decline. A bonus of this casting is that she also does an impressive job of mimicking Nico’s deep speaking voice and her mournful, heavily accented vocals.

This movie is not recommenced if you want to cling to an image of Nico as a glamorous, subcultural icon but if you want an honest representation of the flip side of stardom then this film definitely fits the bill.

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