‘Nico, 1988’ is a Tragic, Humane Portrait of an Underground Icon’s Final Days

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It’s hard being a lover of rock ‘n’ roll and cinema. So many greats of rock ‘n’ roll have been subjected to the biopic treatment and far too many find themselves lulled into formulaic complacency. If you were judging by movies along, you’d think that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash led remarkably similar lives, almost mirror images. Thankfully, Susanna Nicchiarelli film about Nico, the German model and singer best known for her work with The Velvet Underground, only focuses on the tragic final chapter of its subject’s life. Nico, 1988 is an examination of faded glory, addiction, and elusive nature of identity as it refuses a by-the-numbers approach to its subject.

When Nico (Trine Dyrholm), born Christa Päffgen, is introduced, her heyday of the ‘60s is well in her past. She’s the former singer of The Velvet Underground. She’s the former it girl for Andy Warhol. She’s now a solo artist and a heroin addict, touring Europe in a beat up van. On tour with her and ragtag band of fellow addicts is Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a punk poet with his own affections for Nico despite her more difficult aspects. Along the tour, Nico must confront her complicated legacy as most want to remember her in the shadow of the men that she worked with – be it Lou Reed or Andy Warhol. Adding to her complicated emotional state is regret over the alienation with her son Ari (Sandor Funtek), who was raised by his paternal grandparent. Anyone familiar with Nico’s life story knows that Nico, 1988 won’t end well for the model-turned-singer.

With her German accent and monotone drawl, Nico’s musical style seems like it wouldn’t work and yet it turned out to be some of the most influential music of the 20th century. What Nico, 1988 captures so well is that the headliner for one of the most influential underground records of all time being trapped within the shadows of the past. Interviewers ask her about Lou Reed, raising her ire as she’s been apart from the New York rocker for decades. Trine Dyrholm gives a powerhouse performance as the faded star of the underground, capturing the defiant attitude that is undercut by an incredible chemical dependency. Amplifying the character’s depression and more difficult personality traits is that hopeless addiction to heroin, often sneaking off into the bathroom to remove the heroin hidden in her boot to shoot it in her veins. It’s a tragedy that can only end one way, though Nicchiarelli defies any expectations to the foregone conclusion.

Susanna Nicchiarelli doesn’t use Nico, 1988 as a case for hagiography, instead the writer-director crafts a complex and tragic portrait fitting of her subject. Nico’s reported racism doesn’t make much of an appearance in the film, but it still explores how World War II shaped her worldview and how the division of power at the end of the war reshaped the continent of Europe. Nico and her band travel a Europe still fractured from the cold conflict between Western democracies and Soviet-styled regimes, exemplified by a show in Prague that is raided by the communist police force. Nicchaiarelli crafts an interesting perspective where history and art collide, the past and its demons being exercised through music. 

Nico is one of the most fascinating characters to appear on the pop culture landscape of the 20th century and Nico, 1988 brings that tragic final chapter to the screen with nuance and empathy that never crosses over into mythmaking. Anyone who ever popped on that first Velvet Underground record will want to see this biopic that bucks convention while capturing a sense of despair amidst the neon-infused nightclubs where the starlet reluctantly takes the stage. It’s rare for a rock ‘n’ roll biopic to be worthy of its subject, but Nico, 1988 is most certainly that.

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