Friday 13 October 2017

Nico, 1988 (Susanna Nicchiarelli, 2017)

The German singer Nico, much to her chagrin, was - and is - best known for her work with the Velvet Underground; 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico (yes, the one with the banana on the cover) is a seminal work widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.  Nico, 1988 is a Belgian co-production - filmed in English - which concentrates on the last two years of the singer's life which, somewhat bizarrely, saw the onetime member of Andy Warhol's crowd set up camp in the northwest of England.  From this unlikely base, the film follows Nico as she embarks on a series of European dates which are, at best, spottily attended.  Backed by a ragtag band of musicians who, by the singer's own admission, are a bunch of hopeless junkies, Nico's live performances see the singer operate in one of two modes: indifferent or angry.

As with the bulk of her backing band, Nico (Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, terrific) has a taste for heroin and does not take particularly good care of herself.  Haunted by the memory of the son she only had a small part in raising, she seems bent on self-destruction, and making music doesn't give her the outlet or satisfaction she so desperately needs.  The ex-model has no trouble attracting men, and at least two of her entourage become smitten with her, but these dalliances appear to be no more fulfilling to Nico than anything else her life has to offer.  One of these suitors, her makeshift manager Richard, goes above and beyond the call of duty when he proves instrumental in reuniting Nico with her son Ari, who is both a grown man and extremely troubled.

Anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Nico will know that this doesn't end well for her; while Nico, 1988 is not the most flattering portrait of the singer, we do get to see a real human being trying to break through the haughty sense of entitlement, and Nico's maternal instincts work to show her at her best.  Ari himself is a likeable sort, but even though he didn't have much to do with his mother while growing up, he obviously has a similar, if more vulnerable, personality to the woman who gave birth to him (while the film mentions he was raised in France by his paternal grandparents, it fails to name the father: French superstar Alain Delon).

Of course, Nico was never much of a singer, and her insistence that people stop referring to her Velvets/Warhol work only highlights the thin and patchy nature of her solo efforts.  Her stance is one that we've seen many a time: the star who distances themselves from what it was that made them famous (and continues to be the source of any present interest).  Nico's contempt for virtually all around her (barring Ari) is a textbook example of someone who can't really come to terms with the fact that her fame is both in the past and down to others.  She - as her erstwhile mentor would have put it - had her 15 minutes; the real problem was what to do with all the years after that time.

Nico, 1988 in some ways recalls London Town from last year's LFF: both films give a snapshot of the life of a music icon (in London Town's case, Joe Strummer was the star in question), and the films share a similar ramshackle charm which greatly helps an imperfect movie become a hugely enjoyable cinema experience.  John Gordon Sinclair - an always likeable presence - fumbles terribly with an accent that seesaws between Rochdale and Rutherglen, but such problems don't distract from the fun.  Strange to think that a film about the last days of a heroin addict might be described as "fun", but this really is a warm, highly watchable piece of cinema.  It plays at the London Film Festival on the 14th and 15th of October.

Darren Arnold

Image: Celluloid Dreams