“Nico, 1988” at the Tribeca Film Festival: 2 Reviews

Trine Dyrholm as Nico in “Nico, 1988.” | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Glimpses of the Woman Behind the Iconic Image

Review by Puma Perl | I’ve been obsessed with everything Nico since I was a teenager. I wore out three copies of the debut Velvet Underground album, and closely followed her solo career. Her cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” was a brilliant choice to open this film, a biopic covering the last two years of her life. In the opening scene, a little girl (Nico) asks her mother about the beautiful, bright lights she sees in the distance. Berlin is burning, she is told. Next, we see the grown Nico, on vacation in Ibiza, telling her son she is taking what would be a fatal bicycle ride into town. The film then takes us to the beginning of the end.

The film’s Nico, played by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, is no longer a blonde beauty. She’s bloated, dissipated, regretful, distant, demanding — but can still be charming when the mood strikes. Men fall in love with her. She has huge appetites for drugs, cigarettes, food; the latter, she explains, is because she was always hungry as a child. The 49-year-old Nico instructs people to call her by her given name, Christa, and refuses to be defined by either her Velvet Underground fame or her Warhol era high cheek-boned looks. In interviews, she declines to discuss the Velvet Underground days, stating that her life in music began when she started doing her own. “I’ve been on the top, I’ve been at the bottom. Both are empty,” she states in a radio interview. She wears her age defiantly, clad in black leather pants and a studded bracelet she stole from Domenico, based on the Italian singer, Domenico Petrosino, who tells her he would have gladly given it to her. “But it was more fun to steal it,” she responds, to his amusement.

The film is a road trip on a European rock and roll tour out of hell. She doesn’t believe in the record, and except for the violin player, looks with disdain upon the band, shoots heroin into her bruised ankle no matter who is watching, and throws tantrums in hotels and restaurants. The drugs don’t cut through her pain about her son, Ari, who is in the hospital as a result of his own addiction. There is a listlessness to the performances until they enter Prague. Crossing the border, they have, by necessity, left their drugs behind. Based on a show organized secretly by rock fans in 1985, before the Velvet Revolution, the concert takes place in a dark, underground space, and is the most exciting scene in the film. Dyrholm is also a singer and she’s able to capture the ways Nico’s monotone could turn to emotion as she performs a rebellious, charged rendition of “My Heart Is Empty” to an exuberant crowd. When the secret police break up the show, the band and their entourage flee out the back door.

Italian writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli brings a reality to the film by her use of vintage footage, including hand-held camera work by Jonas Mekas. The supporting cast, particularly John Gordon Sinclair as the de facto manager, and Sandor Funtek as Nico’s son, are especially noteworthy. Dyrholm’s commitment to the role brings us glimpses of the woman behind the iconic image, whose life takes a brief upswing towards the end of her life. At times it felt like neither a biopic nor a documentary, but like places you’d visited with people you knew. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, apparently. On my way out, a woman stopped short behind me. When I turned around, she said she’d thought for a moment that I’d stepped out of the film.

Thurs., 4/26, 8:15pm at SVA Theatre (333 W. 23rd St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), Fri., 4/27, 9pm (this screening is free w/ticket) at Regal Cinemas Battery Park (102 North End Ave., at Vesey St.; free with reserved ticket), Sat., 4/28, 7:30pm Cinépolis Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.), and Sun., 4/29, 8:45pm at Regal Cinemas. For tickets and more info, visit tribecafilm.com/festivalTo order by phone, call 646-502-5296 ($23, evening/weekend; $12, matinee; service fees apply for web and phone orders).

Nico’s fans may be the best audience for this film that follows an unpleasant character in a cheerless time of life. | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 A Sullen Rock Star Presses On in Middle Age

Review by Rania Richardson | The story of a heroin addict in midlife, vulgar and morose, may not be prime material for a biopic — but since this is Nico, there is a built-in audience for the account of the final years of the former Velvet Underground singer and darling of the avant-garde.

Italian writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli follows the iconic singer through the late 1980s, now a solo artist approaching 50. With her dark wardrobe and musical style, Nico, the so-called “priestess of darkness,” sets out on a European road trip with a mismatched band and a night-club-owner-turned-manager. From Manchester, which she likens to the post-war Berlin of her childhood, the motley group travels to Paris, Prague, and Nuremberg with every kind of obstacle, from temper tantrums to sexual jealousies to expulsion by Communist authorities.

Danish actress-singer Trine Dyrholm (“In a Better World,” “The Commune”) switches up from her usual agreeable semblance and impressively transforms from the inside out into a dumpy celebrity has-been. Sporting leather pants and an ill-gotten studded bracelet, she demonstrates the kind of egotistical behavior euphemistically called “uncompromising,” for aging artistes who have maintained devotes, sycophants, and hangers-on, fixated on memories of the glory days. But she does live with gusto, whether gobbling spaghetti or choosing lovers on a whim.

At her peak in the 1960s, Nico (née Christa Päffgen) was a model and actress, a legendary beauty who came into to prominence as a muse for Andy Warhol. In middle age, she finds relief in her vanished looks and holds no nostalgia for her heyday.

“I’ve been at the top, I’ve been at the bottom, both places are empty,” she says.

An unexpected highlight of “Nico, 1988” is a few minutes of experimental home movie footage by Jonas Mekas used in flashback to illustrate the earlier revelry of the Warhol crowd (some is even in the official trailer for the film). In general, Nicchiarelli’s music video stylishness supersedes the indulgent narrative, and the visuals are quite engaging by cinematographer Crystel Fournier, who captures the rousing clubs and hung over days with equal potency.

Nico’s life has always been fraught, and this informs her bleak music. (It later becomes an influence on many musicians — such as Morrissey and Björk — and inspires the gothic rock movement.) The singer demonstrates a capacity for interpreting jazz standards with her smoky voice in one surprising scene. The film’s soundtrack contains just a few authentic Nico songs, but fills in with new material in her same raw, non-commercial style.

In July 1988, after kicking heroin and establishing healthy habits, Nico travels to Ibiza with her son, having reestablished a relationship with the (now grown) boy she lost in her irresponsible youth. Ironically, she dies of a heart attack while riding a bicycle on the island, never to achieve her goal of becoming “a very elegant old woman.”

Nico’s fans may be the best audience for this film that follows an unpleasant character in a cheerless time of life. And there is always Spotify to hear her compelling music.

Thurs., 4/26, 8:15pm at SVA Theatre (333 W. 23rd St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), Fri., 4/27, 9pm (this screening is free w/ticket) at Regal Cinemas Battery Park (102 North End Ave., at Vesey St.; free with reserved ticket), Sat., 4/28, 7:30pm Cinépolis Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.), and Sun., 4/29, 8:45pm at Regal Cinemas. For tickets and more info, visit tribecafilm.com/festivalTo order by phone, call 646-502-5296 ($23, evening/weekend; $12, matinee; service fees apply for web and phone orders).

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