Nico, 1988: Portrait of Rich and Tragic Life

Nico, 1988, which opened the 2017 Venice Horizons section, is not the first documentary about Christa Paffgen, better known as Nico, the superstar of the famous Andy Warhol’s Factory and then lead singer of The Velvet Underground.

In 1995, another female director, Susanne Ofteringer, chronicled in Nico Icon the self-destructive lifestyle of the German singer, actress and model, but it was a broad docu that tried to encompass a whole life in one-hour frame.

Thus, it is refreshing and illuminating that in Nico,1988, writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli offers a limited but in-depth look—basically the last three years of the celeb’s life, from 1986 to 1988–as an intriguing figure, who somehow continues to hold interest among both older and younger viewers.

To say that this remarkable woman had a tragic life doesn’t begin to convey the rich life she had lived, splendidly played by the Danish actress and singer Trine Dyrholm. As a writer, Nicchairelli understands the importance of the socio-cultural contexts in which a femme and a phenomenon like Nico could exist, thrive, and survive, albeit at a heavy price.

Almost entirely in English, the docu unfolds as a series of episodes of a life equally blessed and plagued by high and low points, good and bad memories, and also some regrets. We get a haunting image of Nico as a child watching with her mother how Berlin is destroyed by the Allied forces.

Her early, relatively happier life is briefly glimpsed in super-8 flashbacks, which depict Nico’s cool entourage (Mick Jagger and Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Jim Morrison, Brian Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) and acting career (in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls).

In her solo, post-Velvet Underground musical career, Nico is described as the “priestess of darkness, due to her black leather leggings and boots, a strong fashion statement, in tune with the countercultural era of the 1980s.

The feature’s key scene chronicles her band’s disastrous tour from Manchester to Italy and culminating in East Europe, when she and her British manager go on the road with a small, rather inept band to promote her latest album.

Some powerful moments include Nico’s addiction to heroin, often in public places and before her concerts, and the direct, rude manner in which she communicated with her band members and her audience.

The director captures both the tragedy and pathos of Nico as a young, unfit mother of a boy, whose father refuses to acknowledge him. He is adopted by his French grandmother but sadly ends up in an asylum for the mentally ill. Her reunion with her son, though too late to change the course of events, provides the film’s most touching moment.

Dyrholm, who won the 2016 Berlin Fest best actress for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune, is very well cast as the older fading star, a woman who had lost not only her looks but also her interest in singing—and living.

End Note

Nico died 18 July 1988, while vacationing on the island of Ibiza with her son Ari.  She had a heart attack while riding a bicycle, hitting her head as she fell. After being misdiagnozed, it was revealed that cerebral hemorrhage was the cause of death.

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