Many of the great pop culture icons survive through the imagery of their youth, and the photos of their prime. Seldom do we reflect on the final chapters or the later years. That fleeting goddess Fama can favor an individual, but immortality is usually granted through the memories and artworks left after death. Nico, real name Christa Päffgen, was one of the stranger and at the same time most alluring visages to appear in the 1960s. Model, actress, singer, she appeared ever so briefly in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita before transforming into the underworld muse of The Velvet Underground. Andy Warhol, too, adored her and delighted in photographing her Nordic profile. Among her reputed lovers were fellow luminaries like Jim Morrison, who encouraged her to write her own songs. But for Italian writer and director Susanna Nicchiarelli, the more interesting chapter in Nico’s long journey is the end, when the looks have faded, the blonde hair is dyed black and what remains are painful reflections and haunted memories.
Nicchiarelli’s new film, and her first international feature release, Nico, 1988, chronicles and imagines the final days of Nico, played by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm in a performance of impressive creation, as a final, gritty road trip. Nico finds herself with a small band, performing her own material. She does interviews where the young insist on asking about The Velvet Underground. Her new manager is Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), who has left everything behind to represent her and revive her music. But it’s a hard road to travel as Nico still deals with heroin addiction, a habit she has passed on to her son, Ari (Sandor Funtek). Her band, including violinist Sylvia (Anamaria Marinca) and guitarist Alex (Calvin Demba), deal with their own love affairs and the pull of drugs while playing small and at times near empty venues, crossing into the Czech border or staying in shabby motels. Sometimes lost in memories of the past while confronting the harsher present, Nico finds solace in her only true home, the stage, where the songs become a conduit for her deepest scars and greatest joys.
“I think she was a very interesting figure. I find she’s very ironic, very intelligent, I like her voice, I like her music. But I think she’s an interesting figure even as a woman, because she was never in any moment of her life a victim,” says Nicchiarelli in Rome while taking a break from promoting the film. “Even when she was an icon, she was not being used by other men. She was probably using her beauty somehow to get where she wanted. She’s not at all a cliché. We’re used to in biopics of seeing the cliché of fame and then being forgotten. My feeling is that with Nico, the path she went through was different. The way her life has been gave me the possibility to tell a different story about an artist.”
This independence of spirit is evident in Nico’s avant-garde style of music, which even today still sounds out of its time, if not our own. “She was not at all trying to go after the taste of the times. When you think of the early 1970s or even in the 80s, the music she made was different. She anticipated the gothic and New Wave movements, she anticipated a lot of things. She didn’t care if what she was doing was not commercial. That has always fascinated me. We always worry about others and what others are going to think about what we do. It’s interesting to see how she did not care. She had her own project in mind. She doesn’t need everybody to like her.” Nicchiarelli scoured through countless interviews and film clips, finding moments that provide a true insight into Nico’s thought process. In the first dramatized interview in the film, Nico becomes her own iconoclast. “One of the reasons I fell in love with her was something you see in that first interview, the way she took out all the myths from the 60s. All the journalists were trying to tell her ‘that was the best period in your life,’ and she shrugs and says ‘we took a lot of LSD.’ That was one of my favorite lines. I don’t like nostalgia, I don’t like people attached to their past.”
As a woman artist Nicchiarelli is also fascinated by Nico’s dismissal of fears of aging. In the film she is haunted more by past decisions that might have led her son towards drug addiction, but she is never concerned with how age affects appearance. “It’s something her son told me she would say, ‘I want to become an elegant old woman.’ That’s the way she was.”
But finding the way a figure from the past lived, the attempt to get a sense of a life experienced means following the trail left behind. The film combines moments of imagined events, with anecdotes people who knew Nico shared with Nicchiarelli. “I read everything that has been written about her, and watched documentaries, including a very good German documentary made about her at the end of 90s called ‘Nico Icon.’ I found the people I wanted to contact. I flew to Manchester and met her manager from those times, Alan Wise, who unfortunately recently passed away and wasn’t able to see the movie. But he read the script. I met Nico’s son, Adi, which was the most important meeting emotionally. He was her first thought every time she opened her eyes in the morning, that’s what everybody told me. What had happened with her son was her major regret.” There is a scene in the film where Nico sits down to have late night spaghetti with an Italian concert promoter, Domenico (Thomas Trabacchi), and it is one of those special moments taken fully from real testimony. “Domenico is a real person. I interviewed him and that whole spaghetti thing is true. So I put together a lot of real elements, and then I made up a lot of stuff. I moved around dates and concerts.”
“All Tomorrow’s Parties,” 1982
Essential to Nico is of course her music. The film flows to the sounds of songs like “My Heart Is Empty,” “These Days,” “Nibelungen,” “My Only Child” and the classic “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Quite impressive is the fact that Trine Dyrholm sings the songs herself on the soundtrack, matching Nico’s voice while adding a new, dramatic power. “I listened to the music. I tried to build the script according to the songs I was putting in. That’s also how I worked with Trine, because the songs in the movie are all sung by Trine, not by Nico. Before becoming an actress she was a singer, she has a great voice. It was fun pulling Nico’s voice from her, even having her sing off key because that’s how Nico sang.” It is essential for Dyrholm to sing the music, in particular during concert sequences, because every live performance is a development in the story. While staying at a hotel Nico is asked to sing before a ritzy crowd and she does a gothic “Nature Boy,” when the band crosses into Czechoslovakia she breaks out into a ferocious stage performance under the gaze of Communist authorities. “I needed those moments to be acted. I didn’t want my actress to move her mouth and have Nico’s voice coming out from a recording. That would have been very fake. I needed an actress who could sing. So working on the music was a big part of writing the script and working with the actress.” For Nicchiarelli the album Desertshore has now cemented itself as her favorite of Nico’s catalogue.
Having now created a vivid portrait of one of the enduring avant-garde icons, Nicchiarelli is still not ready to abandon explorations of the past. “I loved to work on a real life story, on a real person. I think real people are interesting and difficult to deal with. Fictitious characters are easier to deal with. Real people can’t be one thing one moment, and another thing the next.”
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.