Warhol: 'She became a junkie, disappeared.' But where did Nico really go?
The sad but strangely magnificent final years of the superstar who inspired the Velvet Underground
At her 1960s peak, the German vocalist Nico was “Lou Reed’s femme fatale”, a glamorous superstar whose name was plastered across one of the most influential records of all time. But her days mixing with Andy Warhol and alternative US rockers The Velvet Underground are far behind the drug-addled 40-something we meet in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s upcoming feature Nico, 1988. The singer, embodied in a pitch-perfect performance by the Danish actress and one-time Eurovision contestant Trine Dyrholm, is addicted to heroin and washed up, yet stubbornly content that she has remained true to herself.It is a movie not so much about Nico’s fleeting brush with global celebrity as it is about the panache with which she dealt with the frustration at not being able to leave it behind.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, the 1967 collaboration on which she sung lead on just three songs, has ranked as high as 13 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.It was seen as the progenitor of much of the alternative rock that followed in the 1970s — and the album and associated tours were pretty much the only thing that interested the music press about Nico. Nicchiarelli, a fan of Nico’s lesser-known later music, became intrigued by the singer after listening to her dry, laconic interview answers about her supposed heyday.“She did much more interesting things afterwards, as a solo artist, and I found it very funny the way she treated journalists and the way she took out all the myths from the 60s,” Nicchiarelli said.
“My favourite answer, which I put in the first interview in the movie, is when they say: ‘That must’ve been the best period of your life.’ And she says: ‘Well, we took a lot of LSD.’ That fascinated me and made me like her a lot.”
Nico, 1988 is a poignant and at times hilarious chronicle of the performer’s last tour of Europe before her death from a heart attack on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza in the summer of that year.Leading a solitary existence in Manchester, northern England, her career and personal life are on the ropes, and a new manager (John Gordon Sinclair) convinces her to hit the road again. Approaching 50 and struggling with her demons, she is distracted by the never-ending quest to score another hit and yearns to rebuild a relationship with the son of whom she lost custody (Sandor Funtek).Her voice meanders out of tune as she shambles on stage, her behaviour erratic and tone unguarded, while her legs are covered in puncture marks from needles and unsightly bruises.
Nico — Christa Paffgen to her few friends — suffered poverty and hunger growing up in West Berlin and shared in the national sense of shame that accompanied defeat in World War 2, even though she was just seven when it ended.
Her father had been a German soldier, but whenever she met Jewish people as an adult she would pretend that he had been a brave resistance fighter.
“That wasn’t true and I find that very touching, the way she made up that story. What I think is interesting is that she died a year before the end of the Cold War,” Nicchiarelli said.“So she didn’t even have time to see the end of it. She didn’t see her country reunited at the end of the Cold War. And I liked the idea of telling that part of her life, the final part of her life, because I think it was the best part of her life.”
Nicchiarelli’s thesis is that, even to this day, the singer is regularly done the injustice of being mentioned mostly in association with the “famous men she slept with”. Warhol, a leading figure in the pop art movement, once said that Nico “became a fat junkie and disappeared”, and Nicchiarelli’s third feature is nothing if not a 93-minute refutation of this notion.Although Nico’s commercial successes were well behind her in her final years, the filmmaker sees her as almost the polar opposite of the faded star reveling in past glories, lamenting vanished beauty.
“The whole thing gave me the possibility to turn around the cliches about Nico — her life in the final part and then the relationship with her son and her relationship with history, her European identity, her German identity,” Nichiarelli said.
“All these elements were much more interesting for me than the things they usually care about in a biopic — being famous or not famous, successful or not successful — which somehow didn’t seem to be the major interest in Nico’s life.”