“Nico: 1988” is a strangely powerful amalgam of road movie, biopic, and character study. Part tragedy, part morality tale, it serves as a tutorial for those who never quite understood the artistic conscience of the sixties.

Written and directed by the Susanna Nicchiarelli and based on a screenplay by ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­David de Donatello, the film presents Nico, now pushing 50, as a far more interesting person than the insular blond ingénue that sang for Andy Warhol’s Factory “house band” The Velvet Underground. Indeed, the Nico depicted here turns out to be a far more sincere and serious artist than anyone ever expected — caring far more about her art than her beauty.

Organized around Nico’s comeback tour of Europe circa 1986-1988, the film mines her experiences for all their philosophical worth — putting an unrelenting focus upon what it feels like to dedicate your life to something the rest of the world seems intrinsically incapable of comprehending. In this sense, “Nico: 1988” reminds me of both “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and the recent Mr. Rogers documentary — two films celebrating two equally misunderstood heroes of conscience.  

In this film, Nico is ostensibly on tour to promote her new album of dark, ambient, experimental music — electric guitar, bass, violin and drums, accompanied by a droning, morose harmonium overlaid with lyrics that combine the modernism of Sylvia Plath with the Brechtian surrealism of Jim Morrison. One critic described it as “religious music for nihilists,” but it sounds more like “Minimalist Wagner” to me, if you can imagine such a thing.

In the film, an assistant on the tour describes Nico’s music as “miserable.” And it’s an apt description if you remove the negative connotations from that word, for the “misery” in the music — heard in the context of Nico’s life — is made compelling, dazzling, even beautiful. 

Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Nico as a preternatural force, singing all the songs and inhabiting the film almost as a creature from another planet (or at least from another age). Nico has entered her late 40s a fearless woman of transcendent vision, surrounded by uncomprehending audiences (many of whom still think of her as a folk-rock singer), backed by a mixed bag of musicians and drug addicts who vary in talent and aesthetic comprehension.

In this context, everything Nico says ends up sounding surprising, oracular, sometimes even prophetic. When a DJ in Manchester England asks if she regrets not achieving more commercial success, Nico expresses her contempt for very idea of “commercial” art along with her indifference to acquiring a mass audience. “I don’t need everybody to like me,” she says. “I don’t care.” She has, it appears, larger ambitions: to make music that will matter to those not yet born.

Her answer here reveals the film’s true antagonist: the world’s prevailing ignorance of what serious artists really do, what they want and why they suffer. 

When Nico remarks to her promoter, Denis, that “Young people are boring,” it strikes him as an odd comment coming from someone who was once the living embodiment of the 60s’ youth culture.

“It’s their world,” he says.

But Nico disagrees. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” And Denis is forced to admit, “No, I guess I don’t.”

“I have been on the top and I have been on the bottom,” Nico declares. “And both are empty.” She doesn’t say this in a sad way or with any bitterness, rancor or regret. It is for her a simple truth — something a serious person takes for granted and has long known.  

At another point on the tour, Nico asks her promoter, “Am I ugly?”

“Well, yes, you are,” he says.

“Good,” she replies. “I was unhappy when I was beautiful.” 

But her current heroin addiction suggests she isn’t all that happy even now and that she still carries some troubling baggage and a broken relationship with her son into this new, more expressive stage of her career. 

The “real Nico” was, perhaps, less heroic than the woman depicted here — less loving, more prone to self-destructive behavior and anti-Semitic tirades and racially prejudiced outbursts.  (Susanne Ofteringer's documentary “Nico Icon” tells that story.)  “Nico: 1988” is different. It is more of a counter-culture fable, reframing the 60s through the lens of the 80s — and reframing the 80s through the hindsight of the present — using Niko as both symbol and spokesman for those who fight against the spirit of their times. And although her music may be little noted outside a small circle of admirers, the sincerity of her quest is quite moving to those who recognize the price that’s being paid and the victory that’s being won — despite all the losses and ultimate defeat.

To make good on an unforeseen hotel bill, Nico sings Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” during cocktail hour to a group of curious middle-class vacationers completely ignorant of her new sound and artistic incarnation. The success of this unexpected mash-up is one of the film’s many minor miracles.  

But, perhaps, the finest musical moment of the film occurs at an underground concert in Prague. She has just rekindled her relationship with her troubled son, but the concert is raided by the police, and many of her fans are taken into custody. Nico sings (what Denis considers her “best” song) with a power and conviction not yet seen in the film up to this point. It is a moving performance, as the lyrics take on both personal and political meaning: “My heart is empty, but the songs I sing are filled with love for you./A man said that to me. That’s how I know./Sometimes love it does not show,/sometimes it does not even know.”

About two-thirds into the film, Nico tells Denis, “I’m not interested in music anymore.” As the tour has unfolded, her relationship with her estranged son has gotten better — despite yet another attempted suicide on his part. And, despite everything or maybe because of it, her performances have improved. But the music has become less of an ultimate concern and more of a means for giving voice to her truth — a cathartic truth that still sounds like defeat but is beginning to feel like redemption.

When Denis notes the change, she says only “The methadone makes me sentimental.” Her tone is one of stoic weariness laced with gratitude, and it is to Trine Dyrholm’s credit that the burden and dignity of Nico’s artistic quest is so powerfully and subtly conveyed. 

During a radio interview in England earlier in the film, she fended off questions about her life with the Velvet Underground twenty years ago. She explained to the rock journalist that she was not interested in such things and that what matters is what endures, and that what endures should not be left behind us but carried forward. The meaning of this observation is lost on her interviewer and on most of her audience, but it is the great lesson and theme of “Nico:1988,” reiterated in a telling conversation she has with her promoter toward the end of the film.

Denis has given her a copy of Wordsworth’s “Collected Poems” so that she can see where the title of her first original, experimental album The Marble Index came from. She thought it had come from a poem by Coleridge, but it actually came from Wordsworth’s “Prelude” — his epic description of the growth of the poetic mind. Describing a bust of Sir Isaac Newton, Wordsworth wrote: “The marble index of the mind forever/voyaging through the strange seas of thought.”

But Nico is more taken by a stanza from the Intimations of Immortality Ode. “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” Nico asks, “But who put it behind, who left it there?” (I am paraphrasing now) The eternal things, the things that matter most belong before us, not behind us. They should serve as a beacon and a guide!

It is a fitting and powerful observation that unites the two halves of Nico’s life, 60s pop icon with 80s avant-garde composer. It also unites the cultural revolution of the 60s with our contemporary search for enduring values.  Who would have thought of Nico as the missing link?  

Throughout the film Nico carries a tape recorder, looking for the sound she once heard as a child — the sound of the allies bombing Berlin. It was, she tells us, “the sound of defeat.” Does it surprise us that the sound of a city destroyed by aerial bombardment and carried by the wind across the German landscape sounds very much like harmonium music overlaid with a sober incantation of expressionist poetry? It is a brilliant conceit.

In the end Nico turns out to be a tragic figure — but an artist, not a victim — searching for the imperishable among the debris of the recent past. This film makes her our contemporary — if not our mirror.

 


Robert Inchausti is the author of “Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy, Subversive Orthodoxy et al,” and editor of “Hard to Be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats,” and “The Pocket Thomas Merton.”



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