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Nico, 1988 is about the last two years of Christa Päffgen’s life. Päffgen, aka Nico, was a German singer whose biggest claim to fame, much to her frustration, was recording three songs with The Velvet Underground for their seminal debut album. Even though she had a 20-year solo career after that experience, journalists and fans preferred to focus on her time with the VU.
Perhaps it was because Nico’s music can be regarded as “hideous,” at least according to one of her managers in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s film. Her instrument was the harmonium and her go-to sound was drone rock, its one-note rumbles made further irritating by Nico’s tendency to go off-key because of her partial deafness. In Nico, Danish actress Trine Dyrholm captures the singer’s subterranean vocals perfectly whenever she lords over a mic, cigarette usually in hand and heroin forever coursing through her veins.
As portrayed in the film, she was the prickly sort. “Don’t call me that!” she tells an interviewer when he refers to her as “Lou Reed’s femme fatale.” “I don’t like it.” In the next scene, her manager (John Gordon Sinclair) gets the rebuke. “Don’t call me Nico!” she tells him. What else doesn’t she like? Band members who don’t pull their weight onstage. (“What the fuck are you doing?” she asks one in the middle of a song.) That she’s still separated from her depressed son. (The only voiceover here is from court proceedings.) And, she claims, music. (“I really don’t care about music anymore,” she says.)
That last bit is unconvincing. Nico was on a European tour before she died at the age of 49 from a cerebral hemorrhage. And though she does look like she’s phoning it in for many performances here—or is it the character of the music itself?—her relatively upbeat “My Heart Is Empty” is electric, performed at a secret show while she was in a brief withdrawal from heroin. Dyrholm throws herself into the rhythm, thrashing her head and rousing the crowd. Unfortunately for both Nico and the film’s audience, the concert is short-lived as the traveling crew has to high-tail it when authorities bust up the fun.
The end credits state that Nico, 1988 is based on a true story—and if that singular fact is purposeful, it’s a meandering if not uncompelling one. Nicchiarelli largely keeps scenes moving quickly with some disorientating flashbacks, lending the film an impressionistic feel in between more static looks of the tour. Nico’s attempt to bring her adult son, Ari (Sandor Funtek), back into her life is the central subplot, along with a romance between two band members that serves to highlight the effect that heroin has on the group. Nico is always shooting up and her bassist is always fucking up, and both suffer when a border crossing prevents either from carrying a stash. But mostly the plot is more intangible, about her unhappiness: “I’ve been on the top, I’ve been on the bottom,” she says. “Both places are empty.”
Dyrholm is appropriately world-weary, standing with a manly hunch and often being shown in unflattering close-up, her skin wrinkled and eyes baggy. Her Nico is an abrasive protagonist who nonetheless earns your sympathy; her feeling of hollowness is palpable. A little too obviously, the character makes two references to growing old near the film’s end, yet her metaphorical ride into the sun- set evokes true sadness. Nico carried around an audio recorder wherever she went. When someone asks her if she was looking for something in particular, she mentions the thunderous bombing of Berlin at the end of World War II that she heard when she was a little girl. What she was looking for, she says, is “the sound of defeat.”
Nico, 1988 opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.