The unflashy, austere visual style of writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 is but a veneer over the film’s deceptively radical treatment of the musical biopic. Rather than survey the full range of her main character’s life and accomplishments, Nicchiarelli focuses almost exclusively on the last two years in the life of Nico, a.k.a. Christa Päffgen (Trine Dyrholm), as the former Velvet Underground vocalist struggles with drug addiction and the wellbeing of her son (Sandor Funtek) while performing to modest crowds in Europe.
Throughout Nico, 1988, you barely get a sense of Christa the Warhol superstar, or the chanteuse who played an instrumental role in the success of The Velvet Underground & Nico, as Nicchiarelli is more interested in casting the icon as just another working musician. Only a passing comment from an adoring fan gives us a sense of the legend that was Nico. And in lieu of cramming in dramatizations of notable events in Christa’s later years, the film outlines the woman’s frustrations with being at the mercy of a grueling touring schedule.
Keeping with the spirit of its namesake, the film is gloomy and almost stubborn in its sense of focus, though it’s expressively and unexpectedly cinematic when Christa takes the stage and Nicchiarelli crosscuts the singer’s performances with footage shot by Jonas Mekas of Factory parties and concerts, some of which feature glimpses of the real Nico. As Nico, 1988 is resolutely interested in capturing Christa’s essence as a person, these sequences do not convey any desire on her part to reclaim the parts of herself that were forced into the shadows after her fame waned, but rather a yearning for the youthful independence that was her life’s driving force.
The depth of Dyrholm’s voice, the way it halts and burns into our senses, is evocative of Nico’s own, especially during a performance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” And the eeriness of that resemblance against the dissonance of Dyrholm being far from a dead ringer for Nico is Nicchiarelli’s way of pledging allegiance to the real Christa’s hatred of her Nico persona. As seen in the time frame the film covers, Christa prefers not to tour or be managed, and is almost indignant when fans bring up her time with the Velvet Underground, yet she keeps chugging along because singing has always satisfied her. Even though Christa has a heroin addiction that she tries to beat, the film cannily implies that Nico is the true drug she can’t seem to shake.