WFIT

Nico Biopic Sheds Light On Her Life Before And After The Velvet Underground

Aug 8, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 2:45 pm

Director Susanna Nicchiarelli encountered Nico's work the same way most people do: when a friend made her listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico.

"When I first listened to it was one of the major events of my life," Nicchiarelli says. "I started to be fascinated by the voice of this woman and wonder what her story had been before and after that."

Nicchiarelli's film, Nico, 1988, tells the story of the singer and songwriter's final years, a period often eclipsed by her early career after she first caught ears in 1967 with the The Velvet Underground. The film cuts back and forth in time as she struggles to kick her drug addiction, regain custody of her only child and win respect as an artist in her own right.

Nico was born Christa Päffgen in Germany just before World War II. As a child, she watched Berlin burn during the Allied invasion. She began calling herself Nico as a teenager, when her ice-blonde hair and stunning features landed her a modeling career. She started appearing in films — Federico Fellini cast her in 1960's La Dolce Vita — then moved to New York and became one of Andy Warhol's "superstars."

The biopic picks up her story 20 years later — shortly before she died, but long after she dyed her hair black, traded in designer outfits for an all-black wardrobe and became addicted to heroin. Nicchiarelli interviewed Nico's manager, her son Ari and several of her bandmates to write the film.

In a scene based on a true story, Nico — played by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm — stops by a radio station, where the interviewer makes the mistake of bringing up her past:

Interviewer: So here we are with Lou Reed's femme fatale.

Nico: Don't call me that. I don't like it.

So, do you want to tell us about your experiences with The Velvet Underground?

No, I don't. I started making my own music after the experience with The Velvet Underground in 1968.

1968? I mean, those must've been some of the best days of your life.

Well, we took a lot of LSD.

Nicchiarelli says that exchange sums up what she loves about Nico's character. "She was very, very funny and ironic," she says. "And the way she said, 'Well, don't treat me like a survivor. I am this now. This is what I'm doing. This is what I am, and I like what I am now.' "

Dyrholm says one of the things that attracted her to the role was how conflicted Nico felt about the physical beauty that had defined her early life and career. "I think she really wanted to be respected for her art and not her beauty. And I think she struggled a lot with that," she says.

Nico also struggled to find an audience, though critics and fellow musicians loved her often bleak solo work. Sometimes her voice is accompanied only by the drone of a harmonium, and sometimes, nothing at all.

In the film, Dyrholm sings all of the songs herself. She says each one represents a turning point in the film's story. The pivotal moment occurs in the mid-1980s, when Nico and her band cross the Iron Curtain to play a now-legendary illegal concert in Prague.

"It's a liberation for the character in a way," Dyrholm says. "I mean, she can't get any drugs. Then when she goes on stage, she's ill, she's exhausted, she's angry. And then she starts to realize that she loves the music."

By the end of the film, Nico has her drug addiction under control, she's regained custody of her son, and they're living on the island of Ibiza. In the years since her death, her artistic reputation has continued to grow. She's widely recognized as the mother of the gothic music movement, and her work influenced two generations of artists, including the late Elliott Smith, Björk and Zola Jesus.

Nico died in the year of the film's title, 1988, just before her 50th birthday. Dyrholm says it's tragic Nico didn't live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall a year later, especially given something the singer once said in an interview: "Every time I close my eyes, I'm back in bombed Berlin."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new film called "Nico, 1988" tells the story of the final years of singer and songwriter Nico, who first came to attention in 1967 with The Velvet Underground. The movie cuts back and forth in time as she struggles to kick her drug addiction, regain custody of her only child and win respect as an artist in her own right. Rick Karr has more.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Director Susanna Nicchiarelli encountered Nico's work the same way most people do - when a friend made her listen to a debut album that's become a cultural landmark - "The Velvet Underground & Nico."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: (Singing) And what costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow's parties?

SUSANNA NICCHIARELLI: I mean, when I first listened to it, it was one of the major events of my life (laughter) and I started to be fascinated by the voice of this woman and wondering what her story had been before and after that.

KARR: The before part of Nico's story goes like this. She was born Christa Paffgen in Germany just before World War II. As a child, she watched Berlin burn during the Allied invasion. She started calling herself Nico as a teenager when her ice-blonde hair and stunning features landed her a modeling career. She started appearing in films - Fellini cast her in "La Dolce Vita" - then moved to New York and became one of Andy Warhol's superstars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEMME FATALE")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: (Singing) 'Cause everybody knows - she's a femme fatale - the things she does to me. She's a femme fatale. She's just a little tease. She's a femme fatale. See the way she walks. Hear the way she talks.

KARR: The biopic "Nico, 1988" picks up her story 20 years later, shortly before she died but long after she died her hair black, traded in designer outfits for an all-black wardrobe and become addicted to heroin. In a scene based on a true story, Nico, who's played by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, stops by a radio station, and the interviewer makes the mistake of bringing up her past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NICO, 1988")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So here we are with Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale"...

TRINE DYRHOLM: (As Christa Paffgen aka Nico) Don't call me that. I don't like it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So do you want to tell us something about your experience with The Velvet Underground?

DYRHOLM: (As Christa Paffgen aka Nico) No, I don't. I started making my own music after these periods with The Velvet Underground in 1968.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) 1968? I mean, those must have been some of the best days of your life.

DYRHOLM: (As Christa Paffgen aka Nico) Well, we took a lot of LSD.

KARR: Director Susanna Nicchiarelli says that exchange sums up what she loves about Nico's character.

NICCHIARELLI: She was very, very funny and ironic and the way she said, well, don't treat me like a survivor. I am this now. This is what I'm doing. This is what I am. And I like what I am now.

KARR: Nicchiarelli interviewed Nico's manager, her son Ari and several of her bandmates to write the film. Actress Trine Dyrholm says one of the things that attracted her to the role was how conflicted Nico felt about the physical beauty that had defined the early part of her life and career.

DYRHOLM: I think she really wanted to be respected for her art and not her beauty. And I think she struggled a lot with that.

KARR: She also struggled to find an audience, though critics and Nico's fellow musicians loved her often bleak work. Sometimes her voice is accompanied only by the drone of a harmonium and sometimes nothing at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ONLY CHILD")

NICO: (Singing) My only child be not so blind. See what you hold. There are no words, no ears, no eyes to show them what you know.

KARR: In the film, actress Trine Dyrholm sings all of the songs herself. She says each one represents a turning point in the film's story. The pivotal moment occurs when Nico and her band head across the Iron Curtain to play a now legendary illegal concert in Prague.

DYRHOLM: It's a liberation for the character in a way. I mean, she can't get any drugs. Then when she goes on stage, she's ill. She's exhausted. She's angry. And then she starts to realize that she loves the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NICO, 1988")

DYRHOLM: (As Christa Paffgen aka Nico, singing) My heart is empty, but the songs I sing are filled with love for you.

KARR: By the end of the film, Nico has her drug addiction under control. She's regained custody of her son, and they're living on the island of Ibiza. She died in the year of the film's title, "1988," just before her 50th birthday. Actress Trine Dyrholm says it's tragic that Nico didn't live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall a year later, especially given something she once said in an interview.

DYRHOLM: She says that every time I close my eyes, I'm back in bombed Berlin, and I think it haunted her in a way.

KARR: Nico's artistic reputation has continued to grow in the years since her death. She's widely recognized as the mother of the gothic music movement, and her work influenced two generations of artists, including the late Elliott Smith, Bjork and Zola Jesus. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART IS EMPTY")

NICO: (Singing) My heart is empty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.