When Susanna Nicchiarelli made up her mind to take on the story of Christa Päffgen, better known by her stage name Nico, she wasn’t interested in depicting all yesterday’s parties. Best known for her psychedelic heyday as a Chelsea Girl and Velvet Underground muse, Nico lived out her later, tamer days as a solo musician in Europe. This is the era captured in Nico, 1988, which, according to Nicchiarelli, is structured more like a vinyl album than a conventional biopic.
“Of course the episodes were real,” Nicchiarelli said during a Q&A following the North American premiere of Nico, 1988 at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday. “But I took a lot of freedom in putting them together, and I tried to structure it like a record — every piece has a song.” Music is central to the film, which zeroes in on the final two years of Nico’s life as she toured Europe for Camera Obscura, the album that would become her last.
In other narrative films where Nico appears, Nicchiarelli said, “the main thing was who she slept with. And there was an interesting list of men,” including, of course, little names like Lou Reed and Jim Morrison. But with Nico, 1988 Nicchiarelli was determined to engage with the identity that Nico constructed outside of these relationships — an identity that might be more obscure to all but her most hardcore fans. “What usually happens in biopics is you see all these lookalikes,” she said. “What I liked about this period of Nico’s life is that all the famous people she had been dealing with had disappeared.”
The film’s star and center of gravity lies in Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, who evokes Nico less in her appearance than in her vocals. Throughout the film, Dyrholm croons out Nico’s doleful melodies — including favorites like “These Days” and “My Heart Is Empty” — with resonant, pitch-perfect precision. “One of the reasons I picked her is she doesn’t look like Nico, and I preferred that,” Nicchiarelli said. Even so, she added, “I don’t think I would have been able to make this movie without her.”
The music sequences, often presented in their entirety, contribute to the movie’s realism and sense of immediacy. Even when Nico shoots up with heroin — a frequent occurrence in the film — there’s none of the trippy surrealism you might see in other rock-and-roll flicks. Instead, we see a Nico who enjoys spaghetti and limoncello, who’s more concerned with her son’s well-being than the popularity of her album. Nicchiarelli didn’t want to make a movie that just alternated “between success and failure,” she said. “A human being’s life is everything that happens in the middle.”
So how do you live a life in the now when your past is steeped in mythos? Herein lies the essential question of Nico 1988, a question that haunted Nico’s final years and has no easy answer. “I don’t like in people when they live in the past. It’s usually an excuse not to live your present,” Nicchiarelli said. “Nico was somebody who affirmed her present with determination, with every inch of herself. She’d say, ‘Let’s talk about what I’m doing now, who I am right now.’”