RETRO REVIEW: Don’t Call Me Nico, Reviewing NICO, 1988

by Brooke Sonenreich
Contributing Writer

NICO (2018); Dir. Susanna Nicchiarelli; Starring Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca; Opens Friday, Sept. 7 at the Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

“Don’t call me Nico. Call me by my real name: Christa,” says the disheveled, 45-year-old Danish actress, Trine Dyrholm who plays Nico in NICO, 1988.

The film is a biopic of the last two years of the life of Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico from The Velvet Underground. However, the story is an authentic representation of a time long after Nico’s involvement with The Velvet Underground. It’s a look at Christa’s middle-aged debauchery as she tours through Europe with a group of amateur bandmates. In between driving through beautiful roads, the artist participates in interviews that often bore her with questions concerning her being Lou Reed’s femme fatale. She seems annoyed at, if not completely oblivious to, the fact that without The Velvet Underground her solo rock career wouldn’t be as successful as it is. Indeed, it is her spot in 1960s history that makes her important to her fans more than anything else.

She makes a respectable point though when speaking at an Italian press conference: “Well, I only sang three songs with them. The rest of the time I was playing the tambourine in the background. I did the same thing when I was a model; I was there for my image. Look, my life started after the experience with The Velvet Underground.”

The film moves slowly through Christa’s ups and downs on the road, sometimes following her into the bathroom as she brazenly shoots up heroin into her bruised ankle. Still, it moves through these spaces with little judgment.

Trine Durholm in NICO 1988, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Often times director, Susanna Nicchiarelli, oscillates between archived footage from Nico’s time with Andy Warhol’s stylish gang to the late 1980s moments of her on stage at various European venues. In contrast to the archived footage of her youth, the singer now shamelessly indulges in food and alcohol. She celebrates her unkempt look as she confidently states, “I’ve been on the top, I’ve been on the bottom; both places are empty.”

Perhaps the most memorable scene is after the star does heroin in a club restroom. She enters the stage to perform the song “Nature Boy” with the backing of an Italian jazz band. It’s a solemn rendition of the song and it conjures up emotions regarding her estranged, suicidal son Christian Aaron Päffgen, or “Ari.”

The film picks up when Ari joins the tour for quality time with his estranged mother. In a rare moment of desperation, when Christa is doing methadone in a room next door, Ari slits his wrists and winds up in a foreign hospital. Here we voyeuristically experience the downside of the Päffgen family’s drug use. Despite Christa’s seamless ability to perform while on heroin, the drugs have infected her and her son’s lives in ways that become more visible than the bruises on her ankle.

The conclusion is weak compared to the rest of the film, if only because of its lazy reliance on end title cards to inform us of the star’s actual death. Nevertheless, even though the biopic is slow moving, it stands well as an entertaining and thorough look at Christa’s last moments in the limelight.

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