Nico, 1988

Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli

Jul 30, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Music bio films, much like pop songs, are a form that’s easy to dabble in but hard to get right. Films like Walk The Line, Ray, and Straight Outta Compton fall victim to the checklist nature that plagues most of the genre. In their race to sum up an artist’s entire life and career in the course of two plus hours, they rarely have enough breathing room left over to really dig into their subjects or offer anything more profound than cheap psychology. It’s why 2007’s Walk Hard was such a brutally perfect send-up of biopics: from “the wrong kid died!” tragic backstory to lampshading how quickly career-defining works of art get inspired and put together, it nailed every single element that makes these movies feel insincere. In their rush to answer every possible question about their subjects, they wipe out the mysterious allure that makes these figures worthy of a film in the first place.

That’s not to say all music bio pics are a lost cause. Consider the work of Todd Haynes, who paid tribute to complex figures like David Bowie and Bob Dylan by creating fiction films that modeled themselves on the myths and legends that made those men icons. Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There get closer to capturing the essence of their subjects than any proper bio pic could do.

Another way to do music bios the right way is to focus on one moment in an artist’s life. Rather than trying to cram everything into one movie, pick one era from their life and really explore what it says about them. That’s the strategy writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli employs in Nico, 1988, a haunting and deeply affecting examination of the German singer’s final years.

The film runs from 1986-1988: it covers the singer’s tour of Europe following the release of her final studio album, Camera Obscura, and leads up to her death in Ibiza in 1988 at the age of 49.

While best known to most casual music fans as the icy blonde with the montone baritone on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the film wisely puts the Velvets in its rear view.  “Don’t call me that,” a weary Nico snaps at an English DJ for calling her ‘Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale’, “I don’t like that.” What little we see of Warhol, The Velvets, and The Factory come in brief reveries that are brought to life by Jonas Mekas’ documentary footage of the era.

The Nico Nicchiarelli’s film is interested in is the fatalistic chanteuse who cut enduring solo albums like The Marble Index and Desertshore: cold, powerful records that feel as desolate and expansive as an arctic wasteland. And that figure is brought to life by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm in a riveting performance.

Dyrholm’s Nico looks nothing like the Nico immortalized in old Warhol ephemera. She’s not blonde and lithe: she’s a brunette with sunken cheeks and some tread on her tires, a hard and closed off figure with eyes that seem to cut through everyone they fixate on. Dyrholm is frighteningly believable as a junkie introvert, a woman more interested in doing field recordings with her portable sound system and shooting up in bathrooms than dealing with all the trappings of being a cult music artist. And her voice is a dead-on match for the singer, to the point that it’s almost impossible to tell that it ISN’T Nico singing all the songs on the soundtrack until you watch the credits and see Dyrhome’s name on each track.

What makes Nico, 1988 so compelling is how it drops us in media res in Nico’s life. Aside from the Mekas footage flashbacks and a few flashbacks to Nico as a child watching Berlin getting bombed in the distance and exploring the ruins of the city with a friend, it doesn’t tell us much about her past. It just gives us a quick thumbnail of exposition: her post-War upbringing, The Velvets, having a son with actor Alain Delon. Of these biographical points, only the last one really matters in the story Nico, 1988 is trying to tell.

Nico’s son Ari is the throughline that gives the film it’s emotional heft. Dyrholm’s Nico is deeply conflicted and saddened by her relationship with her son, but the film takes care not to reduce her to a sad mom/bad mom cliche. Nico is many things: a lusty lover of life; a nihilistic junkie; an artist who can get transported in gigs, singing rapturously in front of a crowd at a “secret show” in a Communist country; a tyrannical bandleader who can cut a gig off cold by screaming “WHAT THE FUCK ARE ALL YOU DOING” at her bandmates.

Most of the film is spent with Nico on the road with her smitten & long suffering manager, Richard (played by a patient and sweetly sad John Gordon Sinclair) and her band (whom she scorns as a band of “amateur junkies”). One of the many things that Nico, 1988 gets right is its depiction of the unglamorous reality of touring: being crammed in a van; the frustration of trying to get to sleep while two of your bandmates are screwing in the same room; dealing with show promoters who don’t have enough money to put you up for the night; and being interviewed by journalists who haven’t listened to anything you did in the last twenty years.

Even the concert scenes look like they were shot by people who actually go to gigs: Nico and her band playing in front of 20-30 post-punk types swaying awkwardly in place instead of the usual moshing, Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium hysterical bacchanal most directors feel shows look like.

Cystal Fournier’s cinematography helps keep the film feeling grounded. Using a muted palette of blues, grays, and blacks, it evokes the grittiness and understated beauty of New German Cinema. Nicchiarelli keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, showing a keen instinct for knowing just how much thread can be tugged out of each scene before it starts to unravel and cutting away at just the right time.

The sound design is also used to strong effect, opening the film with discordant thunder noises. Nico’s music (as sung by Dyrholm) soundtracks most of the film, with one notable exception: Alphaville’s 80’s synth pop jam “Big in Japan,” which scores a powerful montage as the band drives past an illuminated graveyard on the way to Krakow.

Nico, 1988 isn’t Ray or Walk The Line; it doesn’t have the hubris to suggest it understands who Nico was as a person. There’s no pat explanations for what drove her to create songs like “Janitor of Lunacy” or “My Heart Is Empty.” She’s as much an enigma on screen as she was in real life.

The beauty of Nico, 1988 (and in Dyrholm’s masterful portrayal) is that it makes us understand WHY people like Richard and Nico’s band of amateur junkies would follow her anywhere. Lou Reed may have made her sing that she was a mirror, but Nico was really a locked door -- one with a faint light radiating out from under it. Maybe there’s nothing on the other side, but who wouldn’t want to try and open it.

Author rating: 9/10

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