Movie Review: Nico, 1988

A pre-revolution concert in Prague is a highlight in the singer’s solo career

Nico, 1988
Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli
With Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca, Thomas Trabacchi, Karina Fernandez

Fans of the Velvet Underground recognize the name Nico from the band’s first album, but the singer spent most of her career trying to explore her own sound, while at the same time struggling with drug addiction and a strained relationship with her son, Ari.

The film Nico, 1988 played at both the Febiofest and Days of European Film festivals, and is now making the rounds of Prague’s art house cinemas.

The film catches up with the singer as she is trying to once again revive her career with a European tour that plays small venues. It is quite disorganized. Her manager seems to be the only one who still has faith in her, and is pushing her to clean up her act and get her life together.

Her touring band is mostly amateurs, as Nico has become difficult to deal with and unreliable. Interviewers just want to talk about her time with the Velvet Underground, and she always has to point out that she was only with the band for three songs, and that was Andy Warhol’s idea. She has her own sound now.

What makes the film interesting for local audiences is that climactic scene takes place in Prague. Nico and her band had a semi-legal concert in Opatov in Prague 4. In reality, the concert took place in 1985, but the film moved some events around for artistic purposes. (A live album released as Behind the Iron Curtain claiming to be from the Prague and other Eastern bloc shows is actually a recording from Rotterdam from the same era that was intentionally mislabeled.)

The film is an Italian-Belgian co-production, and the Prague scenes in the film were actually shot someplace else. But they capture the feeling of the era, as the concert organizers try to reassure Nico that an audience will turn up, despite the complete lack of advertising.

Nico in real life also played a show in Brno and went on to Warsaw.

The film shows the band, on the way to Warsaw, drive past a cemetery on the day that families go to light candles. It is more artistic license but makes for a hypnotic moment.

Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Nico — the stage name of Christa Päffgen — and perhaps makes her a bit more sympathetic than she was in real life. Most accounts depict Nico as cold and distant, while Dyrholm brings a playful if still irresponsible aspect to her character.

The former model has now given up on her image and takes joy in late night snacks, and has some intimate conversations with her manager and some musicians. She laments her childhood in post-war Berlin and the hunger she experienced as a child.

Most impressive is that Dyrholm can do an almost perfect imitation of Nico’s deep singing voice, and her vocals are used in the film. This helps to bring a sense of reality that dubbing her over with excerpts from old albums wouldn’t have created.

The most touching part of he story is Nico’s attempts to join up with her troubled son, whom she abandoned as an infant because at the time she was in no state to be a parent. He has also struggled with addiction and as a young adult is trying to become a photographer.

The concert tour in the film captures Nico at her most volatile, blowing up on stage at times and yelling at the other musicians. At other times she can be more reasonable but never fully values those around her, not even knowing some people’s names.

Her manager comes off the most sympathetic character, as he tries to stand by her and push her forward.

Nico had an interesting life, and was linked to Jim Morrison and other icons of the 1960s and ’70s. By the time that Nico, 1988 takes place Morrison was long gone and many of the other stars had faded. Nico was pursuing her own path, which was a conscious rejection of commercial music and commercial success. She had abandoned her glamorous and chic image. Nico, 1988 captures her at the end road, a shadow of what she once was but still a force that refuses to bend.

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