I was just going to overlook this movie, actually, why? Because as a person with an attempted, renewed focus, I've got a radar detector for potential rabbit-holes, and the days are short. Berlin (the city), for instance—no time for it! Also, as a Velvet Underground fan, I'm more of a Lou Reed post-Velvet fan, and I've willfully neglected Nico, even though my friend Jeff Curtis plays a Nico song almost every week on his radio show (“What You Need,” on WRUW, Cleveland) and they're always good. I knew that she died, after a bicycle accident, in 1988, so could this movie not be sad and tragic? Also, what does 1988 mean to me? Personally, a new beginning, I guess. The Cleveland Browns were relatively good. Popular culture was at a low point, but then, that's always the case. Reagan had frozen the minimum wage at $3.35 for eight years, and I made just over that, but I was a rich man compared to now. There's always good music, if you look hard enough, but I had grown lazy. I remember being particularly inspired by Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Also, kind of intriguing—eleven years earlier I had purchased this book by Caroline Coon called, 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (apparently the title was somewhat of a prophecy?—since it was published in 1977?—but I can't remember for sure). So... I just looked and looked on my shelves and have discovered it's been stolen! I know that makes me sound like a junkie who can't find his stash, but it's gone! Stealing someone's books is often justified by the book stealer as “they're not reading it”—but still, it's the lowest of the low, because often the victim doesn't discover the theft until the moment when it's essential the book be located!
So maybe the reasons I had for skipping this movie are the very ones that took me to it, but from the very first scenes I knew that I was in for a real cinema trip because visually it's gritty and beautiful, and musically intense, and dramatically intriguing. As far as the dramatic part goes, I was immediately put off balance by the dialogue and scenes, and just as quickly taken in as I realized that these interactions were so much more like human interactions (where people say things that don't make any sense, but have lots of coded meaning) than I ever see on TV or in movies. This is great writing, great directing, I thought, and I had very little time to think, before the next scene—who is the director, and screenwriter? It's Susanna Nicchiarelli, an Italian filmmaker who I know nothing about—well, of course, now I know this movie. And, well, okay—there were some scenes, later on, that deal with Christa (Nico) Päffgen's difficult relationship with her son that are somewhat more conventional and emotionally tangible—likely appropriate—but not as much fun as the scenes, especially early in the movie, where you have no idea where you're going. Each scene an individual mystery, and collectively an intriguing collage portrait that gave me the feeling—more than anywhere in recent memory—of that off-balance, dangerous, and life-affirming sensation of falling in love.
It's tricky making those biopics, especially ones about musicians, because the most enthusiastic audience for the subject is also the hardest to please. Then there is the question of: Do you use the original recordings of the subject or, as they did in this movie, have the actor sing the material. Both approaches can makes sense—but in this movie, the actress playing Nico, Trine Dyrholm—singing with the band—is the heart of the film. She is really pretty incredible. I had never heard of her before. How any movie gets funded is a grand mystery, and in this case it was apparently a multitude of European sources, but I can just see the meetings (that hopefully didn't happen) with mainstream Hollywood producers who would have been baffled—when the subject came up of making a Nico biopic—at the choice of the time period—the last years of her life—rather than the perceived glamour of the late Sixties, NYC, Andy Warhol Factory years—in which case you would cast a blonde, model-like, American movie star—and so on. And that's the movie I'd have gladly skipped—while this one I'm thankful for having seen. This is the Nico who says, “Don't call me Nico, my name is Christa,” and “I don't want to talk about the Velvet Underground.” This movie is about a powerful artist who says she doesn't care about the size of the audience, but who is deeply concerned with the music—and we get that sense from the performance. And also, a human being who is, as human beings are, full of contradictions.
I probably should be suspicious of my strong reaction to the movie, just because I know the power of the cinema can suck you in like a good evangelist, and just the sheer amount of scenes with Trine Dyrholm's eyes burning a hole through the screen should have been a warning. Who is this actress, anyway? I looked her up after I got home—she's Danish and has an enormous list of credits, awards, accolades, all of which don't surprise me, or impress me as much as this performances surprised and impressed me. Apparently, all the music was also recorded for this movie—I don't know the actors, I don't know the musicians, but I liked it all a lot. Dyrholm sang all the songs—and I also loved all of the songs—some of which I knew (Velvet Underground songs), and some I didn't. Their version of the Nat King Cole standard, Nature Boy, though—that one really killed me. Now I'm probably going to go back and listen to Nico's music, and I'm going to keep an eye out for this filmmaker, Susanna Nicchiarelli, and I'm going to hope that Trine Dyrholm gets more parts as good as this one, in movies that come to town. Hopefully someone is writing really good parts for women in their forties and older— other than those stories, you know, about meeting a corny, nice guy to grow old with while learning to embrace social media. Finally, as a public service announcement—you should go to this movie—but if you're a recovering smoker, you might want to take along some nicotine gum or something.
Randy Russell 9.26.18