The model-turned-musician Nico (with a memorable period at the heart of Andy Warhol’s extended family) has always been a source of fascination for me. Her work with the Velvet Underground is hard to ignore and was ground zero for a certain type of dirge-like music that still influences today. But as the title may indicate, Nico, 1988 isn’t about her higher-profile years; it’s less biopic and more character study. Instead, writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s (Cosmonaut) work concerns the final year of Nico’s life, living a solitary life in Manchester and attempting to generate some interest in her latest music by going on a European tour.
Wrestling with history and personal demons, Nico (played exquisitely as a shadow of who she once was by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm) attempts to steer every interview away from her Velvet Underground music and onto her new release, with limited success. Her new manager Richard (John Gordon Sinclair) is slowly falling in love with her, while simultaneously watching her succumb to a heroin addiction and lash out in frequent tantrums aimed at her young band who have barely had a chance to rehearse with her before the tour. There are brief flashbacks to her past glories, as well as early years with her son Ari (Sandor Funtek), whose custody she lost when he was still a small child. Now an adult, Ari is on her mind a great deal and she seeks to reconcile with him amidst the chaos of her tour schedule.
Nico, 1988 has a tendency to feel like a murky, self-fulfilling prophecy, but it also spotlights a detail-oriented musician who refused to prop herself up on successes from 20 years earlier. It’s rarely a pleasant experience watching her decline in both mind and body, but when she launches into a song and strikes a chord with the audience, there’s a glimmer of hope that she may get what she’s searching for. Dyrholm sings all of the songs herself, and the similarity to Nico’s actual vocal style is often uncanny, even though she’s clearly not attempting to copy the singer.
It’s difficult to make an engaging film about someone who seems to be miserable all the time, but Nico, 1988 comes pretty close to giving us a complete portrait of the songstress without covering her entire life. It’s a bold way to tell a story, and if curiosity brings you to the theater, the result is worthy.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.