Nico by name

The iconic Warhol/Velvet Underground-era singer and model gets a sympathetic biopic treatment.

Nico performing with Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1966 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Nico performing with Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1966
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
As dark characters go, surely they don’t come much more lugubrious than iconic Velvet Underground-Andy Warhol star Nico. Then again, relating solely to that side of the fabled German-born singer, actress and model’s persona and character, would be to short change her iconic legacy, and to present her in a distorted, one-sided light.
Nico, 1988, by Italian writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli, is one of the more intriguing pop-culture films to come out in recent years, and will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on July 31 and August 3, as part of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival.
The single professional appellation replaced the eponymous character’s birth name of Christa Päffgen. She was born in Berlin, in 1938, and lost her father in the war when she was just 18 months old. As we are told in the film, the Allied bombing of the German capital was one of her earliest childhood recollections, and may have colored her entire take on life, as did growing up fatherless, as well as some of her subsequent artistic output.
The date in the movie title refers to the year in which Nico died, at the age of just 49 when her life came to a tragic and unexpected end. She suffered a heart attack while cycling in Spain, where she was spending some quality time with her formerly estranged son Ari who, apparently was fathered by megastar French actor Alain Delon, although he never recognized Ari as his son. Nico sustained a serious blow to her head when she fell from her bike and died within a couple of days of the accident. Ironically, that happened just when she was finally beginning to make a go of things on a personal level.
“That is one of the saddest things,” notes Yoav Kutner, an Israeli expert on pop and rock music and veteran DJ.
Nico initially made a name for herself as a model in Paris, but came to much wider notice after moving to New York where she eventually found her way into the Andy Warhol scene where she rubbed elbows with the likes of David Bowie and, more importantly, Lou Reed, John Cale and the rest of the Velvet Underground gang. Warhol quickly drew her into his coterie of “the young and beautiful” and she was frequently paraded in front of the public and the press. The latter generally used epithets such as “chanteuse” or “siren” to describe the sultrily attractive German although not too many took her musical endeavor with Velvet Underground on their 1967 debut album  – The Velvet Underground & Nico –  too seriously.
 “Like the rest of the world, I discovered Nico only with the first Velvet Underground record. She didn’t sound too much like a real vocalist,” said Kutner. 
Nico sang on three songs:  “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Femme Fatale,” all of which remain timeless classics.
“Nico was known as a model, and she had a bit of German accent when she sang. She was very beautiful and had a delicate singing style,” Kutner added.
Then again, Kutner notes that Nico’s lower key approach, albeit the result of her more limited vocal range and power, offered an alluring sonic and energy counterpoint to the rest of the album. “The other material of the record is very hard – the lyrics and the music. It’s not a typical 1967 album made by hippies, with everyone happy and smiling. It’s a very gloomy record. Even so, Nico sounded so pure and untainted,” said Kutner.
Maybe she was at the time, although she quickly got sucked into the drug scene, and became a heroin addict. Her substance abuse is front and center in Nico, 1988, and leads to all sorts of madcap situations – some painfully bleak, others darkly comical.
Kutner never met Nico but got the next best thing, when he came across former Velvet Underground member Cale, who also played on and produced Nico’s last ever studio album Camera Obscura. Kutner feels that it was a fine valedictory effort.
 “I didn’t really follow Nico after the first Velvet Underground album, until she died and then I started digging into her work. But I really liked Camera Obscura, which I got interested in because John Cale came to Israel at the time, in 1985. For me, Cale is one of the best rock artists ever. On the album, Nico sings one of the most beautiful songs ever written, [jazz standard] “My Funny Valentine.””
It was an altogether far more mature offering, that according to Kutner, “suited the zeitgeist. It’s sort of New Wave, and a bit scary, like [California-based experimental, post-punk, new wave band] Tuxedomoon. It’s also a very personal record.”
Nico had paid her dues by then, and somehow come out alive and kicking, sometimes kicking out too hard.
Nico, 1988 covers the last two years of her life, when she lived in and around Manchester, in northwest England. In the 1980s, the area was not the most prosperous upbeat part of the world. But it was clearly in synch with where Nico was at, within herself, at the time.
The lead character in the film is played by German actress Trine Dyrholm, who puts in a thoroughly convincing, even stunning, performance. You feel as you are watching Nico herself as rants and raves at the other band members in the cramped van as the troupe makes its way across Europe, darting into dingy venues for one-nighters anywhere and everywhere, including then communist Eastern Europe. Nico does not enjoy those excursions, and doesn’t make life any easier for her long-suffering, but besotted, Jewish manager played by John Gordon Sinclair.
Besides her other manifold traits, it is said that Nico was racist, and she comes out with the odd antisemitic innuendo, some aimed at her manager.
The film catches the singer at a fascinating crossroad in her life, when she finally broke free of her image, and began to be herself, warts and all. In various interviews she gave in those years, she was visibly irked when asked about her time with the Velvet Underground. She wanted people to accept her as is, not realizing that the main reason anyone took an interest her at all, was probably because of her New York stint.
Interestingly, her comrades in musical arms all call her Christa, and not Nico, indicating that they related to her as the actual person she was rather than the persona that was hoisted upon her and which she readily embraced.
Dyrholm does an excellent job portraying a prematurely aged character, still fighting demons, with nary a pockmark disguised, and director Nicchiarelli perfectly captures the spirit of the mid-Eighties.

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