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Thirty Years After Her Death, Nico Finally Comes Into Focus

The day James Young met Nico, she arrived at his doorstep with a mutual friend and asked to use his toilet. It was the early ’80s and Young, who would become Nico’s keyboard player and later publish a memoir about their years on the road, didn’t recognize her at first. Finally, by way of explaining why the heroin-addicted singer had spent so long in the bathroom, the friend discreetly informed him that she’d been in the Velvet Underground. “And then it all made sense,” Young recalled in the 1995 documentary Nico Icon. He soon followed Nico into “a little world inside a van, of absolute craziness,” as he describes it. “We were all planets revolving around her moon.”

This is the private solar system Italian filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli recreates in her biopic Nico, 1988, which screens next week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Its title references the year when the 49-year-old German musician, actress, and model born Christa Päffgen died after suffering a heart attack while biking in Ibiza. But Nicchiarelli devotes little time to Nico’s demise, focusing instead on the notorious low-budget global tours that sustained her during the last years of her life. In a van with her band, manager, and sometimes her troubled adult son, Ari, Danish actress Trine Dyrholm’s Nico is a larger-than-life figure squished down to human size.

By that point, Andy Warhol’s “Pop Girl of ’66” had long since traded her icy-blonde beauty and New York glamour for mousy hair, an age-appropriate body, and the freedom to write her own melancholy songs. “My life started after my experience with the Velvet Underground,” the singer insists in the film. Living in bleak, industrial Manchester, she struggled to shake her 15-year addiction and care for Ari, whom she’d introduced to heroin years earlier. Yet Nico, 1988 isn’t the tragedy of a beautiful young woman losing her looks, youth, and fame so much as an effort to understand why she became so desperate to rid herself of those apparent blessings.

In that sense, Nicchiarelli’s film is part of the larger reconsideration of Nico’s post-VU art and life that began in earnest with Nico Icon, directed by Susanne Ofteringer, and has accelerated in the past decade. John Cale, who collaborated with Nico throughout her career, staged tribute concerts in London and New York that emphasized her ’70s recordings. In 2012, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle marked the band’s final dissolution and the death of their bandmate Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson by releasing the trio’s full-album cover of Nico’s Desertshore. Patti Smith joined her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, and the experimental group Soundwalk Collective to reimagine Nico’s songs in 2016’s Killer Road, a multimedia performance and album inspired by the icon’s poetic demise. Meanwhile, a new generation of music critics is revisiting her solo records and finding many of them on par with the best albums by Cale and Lou Reed.

For those of us born too late to have witnessed the final chapters of Nico’s story, who first encountered her as an icon of ’60s cool on The Velvet Underground & Nico and her debut solo album, Chelsea Girl, it wasn’t necessarily obvious that her legacy was in need of rehabilitation. But by the ’80s, she’d become a punchline. Her old friend Warhol dismissed her as a “fat junkie.” In his book Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio, Young recounts a disastrous 1986 show in Australia that ended with the promoter offering his recording for a live album. “With all that heckling?” Young asked, incredulous. “Especially with the heckling,” the guy replied. “Novelty market, mate.”

Even the most sympathetic observers framed her as a stock sad-girl character or cautionary tale more than an artist or a human being. “She’s a rock equivalent of the tragic icons of cinema, Garland and Garbo, with a career like the script of Sunset Boulevard, except that a broken-down Marlene Dietrich plays the Gloria Swanson role,” NME’s Mat Snow concluded in 1983. “Her fans draw solace from her scars and deep well of loneliness. In the tradition of poetess Sylvia Plath, Nico is the romantic incarnation of the bedsitterland suicidal impulse.”

Nico and Sterling Morrison during the Velvet Underground’s now-iconic performance at the 1966 New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry dinner. Photo by Adam Ritchie/Redferns.

Before they mocked or pitied Nico, men resented or feared her because of her beauty. Reviews needlessly gendered her as a “chanteuse” or a “siren,” while features tended to include a list of her famous lovers. Robert Christgau greeted 1970’s Desertshore, Nico’s third album, with the proclamation, “Nothing new here—bohemian hangers-on always get to publish their work while the less socially adept (‘charismatic’) are shafted.” Supposedly reviewing the same album, Richard Williams of Melody Maker composed a sort of prose poem about his feelings for her: “Nico frightens me, yet somehow draws me closer to drink from her fountain of desolation and alien fantasy; I don’t think she’s at all aware of the effect she has.” The woman who once sang “I’ll Be Your Mirror” had become a reflection of the prejudices of the men who gazed at her.

With Nico Icon, Ofteringer set out to counteract narratives that focused on superficial aspects of Nico’s persona to the exclusion of her music. “When I started the research and read all the obituaries written about Nico when she died, I thought it was a shame that she was always described as the muse of famous men and all you saw was this enumeration of all the celebrities she had affairs with,” she told the New York Times’ Neil Strauss in 1996. “I thought she was worth remembering for her own work.” (Ironically, Strauss, who is now best known for his pickup artist bible The Game, followed Ofteringer’s quote with his own lengthy rundown of Nico’s paramours.)

Underestimated as a creative force, mistreated by countless lovers, and reduced to a pretty puppet by a series of male songwriters, it’s not hard to imagine why Nico came to despise her bewitching appearance. In Nico Icon, Cale attests to the artistic resonance of her subsequent transformation from radiant Warhol superstar to prickly loner: “Everything that she did was part of this statement that now she was a different person,” he says. “The furniture of her life were these somewhat derelict emotions. It was so highly personal that it was very powerful.”

If she took pleasure in being called “ugly” as she grew older, it was because that so-called homeliness set her free to be more than a muse, as both Nico Icon and Nico, 1988 suggest. Although the ferocious Nico that Dyrholm (best known for her role in 2010’s In a Better World) conjures in the new film is deeply unstable, she’s also intelligent, conflicted, and concerned for Ari. Visibly bored with sex, her remaining vices—drugs and food—are lonely ones. She also appears to be as committed to her art as someone who’s spent half of her adult life dependent on heroin can be. Early in the film, there’s a bathroom scene like the one Young describes, but we see it from Nico’s point of view. Before shooting up, she pulls out the recording device that she carries everywhere and captures the ambient sounds of the room.

Instead of filtering her through the gazes of the many men in her life, Nicchiarelli frames Nico as a product of her childhood. She was born in Cologne shortly before World War II, lost her soldier father under mysterious circumstances, and grew up amid the detritus of postwar Berlin. In a flashback that opens the film, little Christa and her mother stand outside on a picturesque night in the wilderness, watching bombs light up the dark sky.

Later, in a radio interview, Nico explains that she’s taken to field recording because she’s spent her life searching for those familiar sounds of war and its aftermath. “It was the sound of defeat,” she says. After that traumatic upbringing, the glamour she stumbled into as a teenage model in the ’50s must have felt like a culture shock. Raised on ugliness, and pleased by the industrial sprawl of Manchester, she appears to take comfort in returning to it later in life.

Nicchiarelli’s empathy for Nico ultimately casts her late musical career in a new light. There are the obligatory scenes of the singer screaming at bandmates and breaking down in Soviet-controlled Poland, where she can’t get heroin. But we also see her rally at a quasi-legal show in that gray, authoritarian state, energized by the first crowd in years that looks sincerely thrilled to see her. Dyrholm’s eyes and body radiate electricity as she transforms into what appears to be the real Nico—a punk who elevates ugliness to an art form, not the ice queen Warhol and Reed wanted her to be, or the irredeemable junkie she supposedly became afterward.

For as long as she was famous, Nico was misunderstood, first by those who made assumptions about her art based on her beauty, then by those who saw her transformation as an unmitigated failure. For a “bohemian hanger-on,” she didn’t demonstrate much interest in keeping up appearances. And unlike Norma Desmond, she betrayed zero desire to revisit her youth with one more gorgeous close-up. Certainly she seemed haunted, but not by her sagging skin.

Because Nicchiarelli gets all of that, Nico, 1988 never devolves into a sob story. There are glimpses of redemption: Nico traded heroin for methadone in 1986, a choice the film frames as her first acknowledgment that she valued her life. Though her final years were rough, Nicchiarelli doesn’t force them into a rise-and-fall narrative it doesn’t fit. “I’ve been on the top. I’ve been on the bottom. Both places are empty,” Nico says as she devours a breakfast of pasta and limoncello, clearly taking more pleasure in the meal than she ever did in her perfect physique. This is not exactly the kind of bliss we envision for our aging icons. But it’s not Sunset Boulevard, either.

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