Nico, 1988: Portrait of Rich and Tragic Life

Nico, 1988, which opened the 2017 Venice Film Fest 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 the 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 just one-hour frame.

Almost a year after playing at Venice Fest, Nico, 1988 is getting a platformed theatrical release (N.Y., L.A, and other cities), though I expect many more viewers to watch it on DVD and via streaming.

Thus, it is refreshing and illuminating that in Nico, 1988, writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli offers a limited in scope 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 many viewers–both older and younger.

To say that this remarkable woman had a tragic life doesn’t begin to convey the rich texture of her existence.  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. For example, We get a brief yet haunting image of Nico as a child, watching with her mother how their beloved 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) as well as her erratic acting career (She appeared in one of Warhol’s best features, 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 black boots, conveying a strong fashion and ideological statement, which was in tune with the countercultural era of the 1980s.

The feature’s key scene chronicles her band’s disastrous tour, which began in Manchester, continued to Italy and culminated 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 concert performances.  And the docu doesn’t spare us from witnessing the “direct,” and rude manner in which she communicated not only with her own band members but also with her audiences.

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. Nico’s reunion with her son, though happening too late in order to change the course of events, provides the film’s most touching moment.

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

End Note

This review was written Sep 1, 2017.

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