Wide Angle

Nico, 1988 Makes the Case for the Slice-of-Life Music Biopic

The most revealing films about musicians often capture them at a moment away from the spotlight.

Trine Dyrholm dances onstage as Nico in Nico, 1988.
Magnolia Pictures

“I’ve been on the top. I’ve been on the bottom. Both places are empty,” the title character shrugs at one point in the new movie, Nico, 1988. In the same breath, she’s articulating Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s dissent from the conventions of the music biopic.

The standard, of course, is to trace an artist’s rise to glory through their later-career demons until some form of redemption or tragic death. This is the blueprint for such classic cases as 2004’s Ray, with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, or the 2005 Johnny Cash saga Walk the Linewhich became the prime target of the 2007 satire of the genre, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring John C. Reilly.

Not all such movies are bad (I happen to like Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon’s performances in Walk the Line a lot), but the form becomes numbing with repetition. Instead, this film bypasses the most glamorous and/or notorious moments in the life of Nico, the erstwhile 1960s blonde icon of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Velvet Underground. It finds the woman born Christa Päffgen looking unrecognizably haggard in her late 40s, touring Europe in a van with a pickup band, playing her own droning, anti-social music and grumpily sorting out what to do with herself next—not knowing she’ll never have the chance to follow through, as she will die at 49 of an aneurysm after a bike ride on a vacation in Ibiza. That said, certainly, as she goes on and off of heroin, the Christa we’ve encountered is stoically prepared for such a possibility.

Rather than mourning its antihero’s archetypal beauty, which it gives us to understand she willfully and gratefully destroyed, Nico, 1988 seems most regretful that Päffgen did not live to see her German homeland (blasted to ruins in her youth) reunited in the geopolitical upheavals of the following year.

Nico, 1988, then, is an un-biopic: an understated, unflinching character study of an uningratiating woman, that is likewise unwilling to offer audiences the genre’s standard rushes of familiarity. Nico’s various prominent artistic and romantic entanglements largely go unmentioned, at least after a radio interviewer pisses her off by dwelling on them early in the film, as a kind of early warning to the viewer. A few moments of archival 1960s Factory-scene footage (from documentaries by the vital New York underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas) and a couple of just-as-brief flashbacks to her childhood, and the early years of her once-abandoned son Ari, are all we get.

Instead, we’re asked to bear witness to the person Nico has become, and to understand by the end why this woman, in Danish actor Trine Dyrholm’s deeply inhabited performance, might prove just as charismatic as and more existentially resonant than the Teutonic ice goddess of cult-rock legend. Admittedly, this makes the first half of the movie almost boring, a Rainer Werner Fassbinder–like slow-motion windup. But it is repaid.

The cradle-to-grave (or cradle-to-onscreen-text-appendices) music-movie formula seems to be slowly dying out, whether shamed by Walk Hard’s parody, or due to the proliferation and quality of recent nonfiction music documentaries—some of which, like last year’s four-hour Grateful Dead doc Long Strange Trip, achieve an immersive scope a fictionalized treatment is unlikely to equal. The wiser alternative, then, is to tell smaller, more human stories, bringing out the hidden intimacies that only writers’ visions and actors’ embodiments can evoke.

I generally don’t mean the origin-story movie, which depicts an artist’s early days and leaves off on some moment of triumph, as if to say, “And, well, the world knows the rest.” Part of the trick is selecting an unexpected episode, a tale most of the public does not already know. To reach back to an almost nonpareil example, that’s the inspired stroke of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play and Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, in constructing a portrait of Mozart through the near-forgotten rival composer, Antonio Salieri.

A microcosmic approach is more common to biopics about actors (for instance, My Week With Marilyn), as filmmakers frequently have more canniness about Hollywood tropes than music-world ones, as well as those about political leaders (e.g. Lincoln, All the Way, Selma), which can zero in on some signal historical moment. But there have been promising signs.

In Don Cheadle’s 2015 Miles Ahead, for instance, the focus is on Miles Davis in his late-1970s “lost years,” holed up in his Upper West Side townhouse and refusing to release any music. However, that film loses focus with its prolix flashbacks to Davis’ first marriage and an absurd plot twist involving chases and gunfights over a spool of recorded tape that sends it on a left turn toward blaxploitation.

The same year’s Love and Mercy similarly depicts the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson at an enervated ebb, years after his late-1960s breakdown under the oppressive “care” of psychotherapeutic hack Dr. Eugene Landy, until he’s liberated and (partially) restored to productivity by the efforts of his second-wife-to-be. But it also rewinds to scenes of Wilson at his creative peak, during the making of Pet Sounds. The choice to have the two Brians played by two actors without much physical resemblance (Paul Dano and John Cusack) underlines the theme of his transformation. Still, it might have been richer and more daring to stick with slow-and-dumpy Brian throughout.

Nico, 1988’s radicalism on this level reminds me most of Christopher Münch’s similarly slow-paced 1991 art film The Hours and Times, an almost entirely speculative re-creation of a long weekend that John Lennon and the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein spent in a Barcelona hotel in 1962. Shot on a shoestring in black-and-white, the movie uses Epstein and Lennon as a case study in the complexities of close friendships and unrequited passions between gay and (mostly) straight men, in their excruciating discomforts and potential rewards. Yet there’s enough documented truth in it to justify its moments of fan-fiction–esque eroticism, and to illuminate both Lennon’s and Epstein’s lives and trajectories. The Hours and Times includes just enough about the Beatles’ ascending status not to play too coy, but it also never openly winks at the viewer’s knowledge about the future (including Epstein’s untimely death at 1967). It stays sealed in its time capsule.

A few years later, the actor who plays Lennon there, Ian Hart, reprised the role in Iain Softley’s Anglo-German production Backbeat. It concentrates on Lennon’s friendship (again with some homoerotic undertones) with onetime Beatle bassist Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) during their red-light-district nightclub years in Hamburg at the turn of the 1960s. But it’s equally about Sutcliffe’s love affair with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (played by Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee), up to his, again, untimely death. Backbeat is comparatively commercial, featuring many early-Beatles-rock-out scenes—with performances supplied off-screen by alt-rock figures of the 1990s, including members of R.E.M., Soul Asylum, the Afghan Whigs, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana—but it too nods only fleetingly at what’s to come, in order to steep itself in place, period, and personality dynamics.

Speaking of Nirvana, the other music semi-biopic that Nico, 1988, vaguely calls to mind is Gus Van Sant’s 2005 drama Last Days, a very loosely envisioned scenario of Kurt Cobain (called “Blake” in the film) shuffling around the house in the lead-up to his 1994 suicide. It was part of the director’s “death trilogy” of minimal-dialogue, maximal-mood pieces that also included Elephant, his aestheticized fictionalization of the Columbine school shooting. If there is any music film that provides less “fan service,” I couldn’t name it—and yes, I’m even including Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 Sympathy for the Devil, which uses the Rolling Stones as a Trojan horse to convey Black Panther slogans and revolutionary communard analysis.

And yet: Those movies are about John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones. Ubiquitous stars. Even with Miles Davis and Brian Wilson, the directors can assume that most viewers have a general knowledge of the subject’s musical significance. In this way, Nico, 1988—about an artist who’s best known for singing three songs on the first album by a band obscure in its own time, and whose solo work is beloved mostly by hardcore music nerds—has unprecedented nerve. Its nearest relation in subject matter, aside from the well-done 1995 documentary Nico Icon (no doubt a source here), might be the 2006 Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, which aside from Sienna Miller’s lead performance was a travesty of a film (and not in a campy, Theater of the Ridiculous way) and an insult to almost everyone involved.

The major fault of the slice-of-life music film is that the story often has little to do with the music itself. It’s unlikely to offer much insight into the thing that matters most—after all, plenty of people have drug problems, skewed relationships, or personality disorders, but only a tiny percentage produce lasting art. Yet this omission can also be a blessing, because watching an actor mime performance (or writing or painting) is often where narrative illusion messily collapses. It’s hard to represent genius doing what genius does.

Thankfully, this problem doesn’t apply to Dyrholm, who performs all of the Nico music in Nicchiarelli’s film, not mimicking it exactly but creating a sound that fits her version of the character. That said, Nico’s music concedes even less to popular taste than the V.U. or most solo work by its leading lights, Reed and John Cale. It features her often “pitchy” (as they’d call it on American Idol) contralto and logy German accent intoning poetic and folkloric lyrics over her free-jazz–influenced playing of the harmonium and either avant-classical or new wave–ish electric arrangements. (She had a big effect on introverted-punk acts such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, not to mention the Smiths.)

In the first half of the film, most characters who profess admiration for Nico’s music seem a little off-kilter, while her manager’s sympathetic, level-headed assistant mutters that she hates it. And at first we find Nico blearily throwing gigs away, through fits at her band or the audience. It’s not until a later scene where, in withdrawal, she plays an illegal show in Prague that’s ultimately broken up by communist police (which really did happen), that we’re surprised to hear Dyrholm rip viciously into “My Heart Is Empty” (from 1985’s Camera Obscura), and the possibility that she might sometimes have been an unmissable, unforgettable artistic force flashes into view.

The brilliant thing is that we never see it again. We get hints, in the way that she’s always carrying around a bulky tape recorder to preserve ambient sounds—the clunk of a hot-water heater in a prospective Manchester apartment, the beep of a life-support machine for her son in a German hospital. But her ambivalence about her creativity, like a milder echo of her hostility toward her onetime beauty, never dissipates.

In this way, those of us in the audience who arrive invested in her, whether as 1960s muse or as 1970s and 1980s cult figure, are charged with complicity. This is who she was when we became distracted, when our attention flagged. There is also (as with Lennon in The Hours and Times) the thesis that even outside of their conquering arcs, people with star quality still get vexed by the ongoing problem of people falling in love with them against their will. It would be missing the point of the movie to think she mistreats them, even though she does. This is in part a movie about how cursed it can be to be a beautiful woman, as Nico captured in her song “Afraid,” from 1970’s Desertshore: “Cease to know or to tell or to see or to be your own/ Have someone else’s will as your own … You are beautiful and you are alone.” The film leaves one feeling that few humans have ever been quite so alone as Christa Päffgen, and yet so crowded.

Later this year will come the release of one of the most anticipated music biopics in memory, Bohemian Rhapsody, about Freddie Mercury of Queen, a queer immigrant whose sexual identity only became widely known after his death from AIDS. I want to hope that it will be one of the exceptions, a standard-issue biopic that does justice to its subject. But a part of me would much rather that it was just about his school days in Zanzibar, or the week he recorded “Under Pressure” with David Bowie, or his on-and-off relationship with British TV host Kenny Everett. Or anything that would let one of the greatest rock singers ever be discovered as the striver in repose, as the screamer when he whispered, as it might have been to know not a protagonist but a person.