Susanna Nicchiarelli has a lot on her mind in Nico, 1988. It’s almost as if the pure, abstract concepts of loneliness, bitterness, and addiction are manifesting on screen even before we get into the day to day reality of what it was like to be Christa Päffgen (known to those who don’t know her as Nico, a name she tolerates more than approves of) in the last few years of her life. But once she does show us more than a passing glimpse of the highs and lows of that life, those three traits are joined by another: inspiration.
Christa, in just about every scene, practically radiates creativity, her mind seemingly always turned up to ten, not just to pursue her own creative muse but to (necessarily, sadly) try to outsmart those around her. Having surrounded herself with a very small circle of friends she knows she can trust, there still is always that thing lurking in the background, that weird nebulous “in” where any one of them might slip through the cracks and set about sabotaging what Christa sees as her underappreciated life’s work.
It’s in that regard that the film asks some hard questions of its subject. Having thrown herself fully into the heroin addiction that would limit her commercial prospects (such as they were), Nico, 1988 makes the audience grapple with the issue of what we owe to each other and how far our reach and influence should take us in our relationships. Is it enough to love someone and hope they get well? Is it better to insinuate yourself into that person’s life and take over, assuming they’ll just fuck things up further without your help? Force them into therapy, rehab, cancel tour dates, tank interviews, etc…it gets a bit messy, is what I’m saying.
Thankfully, we get both sides of this story and are never really tied down by these larger questions, but they’re always there. More essentially, though, the film is a road movie, following Christa and her band through several stretches of a European tour across the mid- to late-80s. We also get the story of her strained relationship with her son, whom she lost track of mostly by never being around and doing all that touring following their forced separation by the state years earlier. But their reunion and renewed family bond comes to the forefront exactly when they both need each other the most, and when it ultimately proves to be too late for both of them. A lot going on, as I said, since most of this happens in fits and starts while the larger story elements are taking center stage.
Despite an ending that unfortunately echoes the ridiculous final frames of another famous rock star biopic, Nico, 1988 is one of the most pure of its kind to come around in quite a while. The story we get is told almost exclusively from Christa’s point of view. We see the radio interviews where people insist she talk about her years with the Velvet Underground (which she has zero interest in). “Don’t any of you understand that my life began after the Velvet Underground?” she repeatedly has to ask. She’s forging ahead with daring, wild and beautiful new music while the rock press and general public seem like they couldn’t possibly give any less of a shit. It’s horrifying, heartbreaking, but all too familiar. She could’ve given in and given them all what they wanted and sang All Tomorrow’s Parties every night for the rest of her life, but she had bigger ideas.
The film, similarly, grows immediately beyond the tired trope of attempting to cram a famous personality’s entire life into two hours, shortchanging itself and the life of that person in the process. Nico, 1988 sticks to a single instance of near-apocalyptic anxiety over what could have been and all the horizons yet to cross for an artist that still to this day doesn’t get all the critical respect she deserves. It’s a movie about the pain of creating something new and the freedom of allowing yourself to move past the conceptions of others in order to be who you truly are and express through that art exactly what you need to say.
And it’s a film filled with darkness, cutting frequently to that famous Jonas Mekas footage of the young Nico in the alien world of New York in the 1960s. It’s a powerful technique used similarly by other filmmakers to much lesser effect. It’s a testament to the film and to its central figure and star (Trine Dyrholm as Christa) that it helps create a complete world that is as romantic as any other cinematic artistic universe while not shying away from presenting the bleakness of a certain kind of creative process and life. As Christa sang, “there is no witness to my anger.” This film is the witness. We miss you, Nico.