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Nico, 1988 (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

Nico, 1988

NICO, 1988 (2018)

Starring Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca, Sandor Funtek, Thomas Trabacchi, Karina Fernandez, Calvin Demba, Francesco Colella, Freddy Drabble, Matt Patresi and archival footage of Andy Warhol and Nico.

Screenplay by Susanna Nicchiarelli.

Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 93 minutes. Rated R.

80s cult-favorite new wave band named Gene Loves Jezebel released a single called “Nico Superstar” from their singles, B-sides and rarities album Dead Sexy. Yet, even though Nico became an iconic name and face and lived a spectacular life back in the days of Andy Warhol’s Factory, she was never really a superstar. Or even, to be honest, a star.

The German-born beauty (born Christa Päffgen) was a supermodel before there were supermodels, but as an actress and singer, she was never more than a cult artist. She was undoubtedly gorgeous as a young woman, but she hated being known for her looks. She was also known for many of her high-profile lovers, including French actor Alain Delon, and singer-songwriters Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones).

Due to mental issues, severe drug addiction and a rebellion against being known for her looks, she had become much more hardened – both personally and physically – by the time of her final tour, which is dramatized in this film.

Known for her slightly monotone Marlene Dietrich-sounding vocals, Nico’s most beloved album wasn’t even her own. It was a collaboration called The Velvet Underground featuring Nico. She only sang three songs on that album (though admittedly, all three became cult standards). And, despite the fact the album is now considered a classic, it was a huge, huge disappointment sales-wise upon release. It wasn’t until many years later that the album was discovered by people in the discount cut-out bins. The old saying goes, very few people bought the album, but those who did all started bands.

Nico was never really a member of the Velvet Underground. She considered herself a solo artist but sang on the album as a favor for Warhol, who was also a champion for the group. She never played with the VU again (though members of the band – like Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison – did work on some of her solo albums, including the respected 1967 record Chelsea Girl.)

However, by the late 80s she was a slightly bloated, drug-addicted and extremely moody has-been who never quite was. By this point, The Velvet Underground featuring Nico had become a cult favorite, so she had some residual fame from that.

It’s an interesting time to drop in on the singer, and director Susanna Nicchiarelli tells a fascinating, if rather dark story. Actress Trine Dyrholm does a truly stunning job of embodying the contradictions of Nico, a woman who may have once been slightly famous, but that fame was quickly eluding her. She is the queen and tyrant of a rag-tag band, playing half-empty pubs and festivals in small towns throughout Europe, where people want to hear someone else’s music, but don’t really care about her own.

She obstinately understates her time playing with the Velvet Underground, which is understandable, because like she says she only sang on three songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and otherwise just added a little tambourine. She bristles about being called “Lou Reed’s ‘Femme Fatale’” during a radio interview which opens the film.

In fact, at this point in her career, she refuses to sing that iconic song, or for that matter, one of the other VU songs she is probably best known for, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” She does still deign to perform “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” though, so she does not totally cut off the VU. However, chances are that is because she re-recorded that song on one of her solo albums.

Other than that, the soundtrack is mostly made up of Nico’s solo music (performed by Dyrholm and an Italian band called Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo). There is also a coolly oddball group of a few covers – Nico’s ex-boyfriend Jackson Browne’s “These Days” (which she actually originally recorded in 1967, well before Browne ever had a record contract), a downbeat jazz-band take on Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy” and a quirky and morose rethink of 80s synth-pop new wave group Alphaville’s then-fairly-recent single “Big in Japan.”

By this point, Nico, who was always a prickly personality, has become difficult to work with – to say the least. She casually shoots up with heroin in the middle of conversation, she scolds and belittles her band members, she often phones in her performances and she is a constant thorn in the side of Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a harried British club owner who decided to bankroll and manage this tour. (He ends up falling for her, but she shoots him down as casually as she does pretty much everything else.)

However, even if Nico isn’t always good company, she is always fascinating company here. Dyrholm’s tattered, dazed and deadened performance shows a woman adrift, but occasionally she will indulge in the passion she has long smothered. Dyrholm shows a woman who is so long immersed in a character of her own making – a character that she has come to rather despise – that it sometimes feels there is no escape.

“I’m very selective with my audience,” Dyrholm as Nico says in an interview during the film. “I don’t need everybody to like me. I don’t care.”

Nico, 1988 shows that the woman was often difficult to like, but it was sometimes worth the effort.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: August 30, 2018.

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