No one else in the history of music has ever had a voice that sounded like Nico. She stands so apart from her peers that The Velvet Underground had to distinguish her in the title of their album together–The Velvet Underground & Nico. She was a beautiful German model with a young son when she fell in with Andy Warhol and his Factory crowd. When we meet her in Nico, 1988, she is about as far away from that life as she could be- and even as she is only a short couple years away from death, more herself than ever before.
Danish actress Trine Dyrholm doesn’t so much play Nico as much as inhabit her. Nico is actually Christa Paffgen, with the name Nico being her adopted moniker from her younger years, when she was partying hard in Andy Warhol’s “Factory” scene. Within the first five minutes, she is already correcting men in her life who try to pigeonhole her. She tells an interviewer to forget about her time with Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and ask her about her career and life now. She pleads with her manager not to call her Nico, but Christa. She is already engaged in a full time battle for control of her legacy. Yet like many artists, and women artists in particular, she finds that she has precious little of that control.
Nico, 1988 serves as a for-fans-only movie, but also as a reminder to folks who perhaps only knew her from songs like “All Tommorrow’s Parties” or “Femme Fatale” that those songs were only the beginning of her career. At one point she says “My life started after The Velvet Underground…I would rather we talked about the present.” I speak as someone who would only know her from those early days, if it weren’t for my dear friend Jacob, who first showed me her solo albums like Camera Obscura and The Marble Index a few years ago. I had, like many, made up the story that she was a pretty girl with an incredible voice who was merely given her 15 minutes by Warhol (the inventor of that concept, appropriately enough). I didn’t know that she had then blossomed into one of the darkest avant garde singers of all time, called by some “the original goth girl.”
Despite her emphasis on the importance of her life in the present, Christa isn’t doing much to make sure she stays around for much longer. Talking about her young modeling career, she states “I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.” This is, right before she sticks a needle full of heroin between her toes. She is an enigma; a contradiction. She is a survivor–of a culture and an industry that demanded authenticity while celebrating a false reality.
She is also a survivor of a continent that had certainly torn itself apart several times over when she was just a little girl. The opening scene is of a young Christa in 1945, watching the bombing of Berlin from afar as the war was coming to an end. Flash forward to the film’s best scene, an exciting and rawkus performance of “My Heart Is Empty,” a track off Camera Obscura, in a Soviet-ruled Prague church basement full of adoring fans rabid and hungry for real, dangerous art–which then gets nearly broken up by the oppressive state police. Many years removed from the horrors of World War II, Europe is still stuck in many of the same old patterns. As is Nico herself. As far as she has come, and as far as Europe had come, they are each spinning their wheels, still caught up in the legacies of long ago unresolved traumas.
Much of the portrayal of Europe is in the background, as this is ultimately a road movie following Nico and her band on tour in the last two years of her life. The truth is that there isn’t much movie beyond Dyrholm’s astounding performance. A sub plot of her trying to connect with her adult son doesn’t particularly go anywhere. Yet it is a tribute to the power of the performance, and her backing band (who seem to actually be playing their instruments in the film) that it is still quite a watchable film. I never consumed much visual media of Nico or read any interviews of her, so in my mind, she is Nico. From now on when I picture Nico, I will probably picture Trine Dyrholm in this movie. Because so little aside from that central character is fleshed out, Nico, 1988 feels a few steps below the level of recent impressive music biopics like Love & Mercy or Control. Yet if it introduces fans of The Velvet Underground to the one-of-a-kind discography of Nico’s solo career, then this movie will have accomplished something good.
Nico, 1988 is now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse.