Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Nico, 1988 (4½ Stars)

This is a biographical film, following the last two years in the life of Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico. Maybe the title is misleading. Most of the film takes place in 1986. I would have called it "Nico: The End", a reference that her fans would recognise immediately.

To quickly sum up her life: Christa Päffgen was born in Cologne in 1938 and moved to Berlin with her family in 1940. When she was 16 she became a fashion model and moved to Paris. This was when she began to call herself Nico. She became an actress in 1958 and made a series of films, including the lead role in "Strip-Tease" (1963). She had a brief affair with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who encouraged her to record her first single in 1965, "I'm not saying", produced by Jimmy Page. Shortly after this she became associated with Andy Warhol, who used her in his experimental films. He encouraged the band Velvet Underground to add her as a singer, which they did grudgingly, because they didn't think she fitted their style. In 1967 she began a solo career as a singer.

From the 1970's on she began to hate the name Nico and wanted to give it up, but her managers persuaded her to retain it because that was how her fans knew her. She wanted her friends at least to call her by her real name, Christa, but it was too difficult to overcome old habits. She remained Nico, whether she liked it or not.

That's the prologue. The film begins in 1986 when she's practically washed out. She's a heroin addict and she's suffering because her son Ari is in a mental institution, but she wants to pull herself together and go on tour. She rents a small house in Manchester as her base of operations. In the film we see her performing an unsuccessful concert in Paris and a very successful concert in Poland. Despite her poor physical state she still has boundless talent which she can unleash when she's not high.

The film shows her relationships to her manager and her backing musicians, most of whom she considered incompetent. Maybe they really were second-rate musicians, but she couldn't find better musicians because they were scared off by her well publicised temper tantrums.

All the time she travelled she had a tape recorder with her which she used whenever she heard interesting sounds. She said she was trying to rediscover the sound that she first heard when Berlin was being bombed in 1945. Was that a drug-induced mania? I don't know.

The actress Trine Dyrholm, who I've never heard of before, puts on a stunning performance as Nico. We can feel her pain in every scene, but what's most amazing is her singing. She isn't quite Nico when she's on stage, but she gets remarkably close.

I'm curious why Trine sings the Alphaville hit, "Big in Japan". I'm not aware that Nico ever sang it. It's not on her albums, anyway. Maybe she performed it live in her final years. Does anyone know? Maybe it's just a way of acknowledging that Nico had a very successful tour of Japan in 1986 which isn't shown in the film.

During her solo career Nico referred to herself as the Priestess of Darkness. Posthumously she was called the world's first goth girl. Those are just titles. She was an incredible singer with a powerful voice tinged with sadness. I just regret that she was ruined by her heroin addiction. We lost her too soon.

I have a few final remarks about something that only indirectly concerns the film. Isn't there any quality control on subtitles? Today I watched the film in its original English version with German subtitles. Normally I wouldn't look at the subtitles, but I couldn't help noticing some errors. The worst was when the assistant of Nico's manager, Laura, was talking about Nico in Paris. She said, "I find her music so hideous". The subtitle read "Ich finde sie so faszinierend" (literally "I find her so fascinating"). I can grudgingly agree with inaccurate, non-literal translations to make a film sound better in a foreign language, but in this case the translation completely hides Laura's dislike of Nico's music, which is relevant to the film.

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