Sunday, July 29, 2018

NICO, 1988: Susanna Nicchiarelli's splendid three-years-in-the-life bio-pic in U.S. premiere

The name Susanna Nicchiarelli rang a familiar bell to TrustMovies and, sure enough, he'd seen two other of her films in past years via the FSLC's Open Roads series of new Italian cinema, both of these child-centered but very different tales: Cosmonauta (click, then scroll down) and Discovery at Dawn (La scoperta dell'alba). Both were worth seeing, though they did not give him a clue to how far this talented filmmaker has come with her latest work, NICO, 1988. The subject here is the German rock singer, Nico (whose real name was Christa Päffgen), who rose to fame as one of Andy Warhol's "superstars," and was vocalist for the rock group The Velvet Underground before embarking on a music career on her own.

Interestingly, Ms Nicchiarelli (shown at right) seems to also see this bio-pic as a kind of child-centered film, for Nico's paramount object of affection (and guilt) is her son, Ari, a young photographer prone to suicide attempts whom she did not or could not care for properly when he was a child. While this child connection is not the be-all/end-all of the film, in terms of emotional connection, it provides Nico's, as well as the viewer's, strongest bond.

Bio-pics are not my favorite genre of film, but I have to say that Ms Nicchiarelli, who both wrote and directed the movie, has given us one of the best I have seen. It may not tell us everything we might want to know about this unusual singer/performer, yet everything it tells us works. All of what we see and hear comes together to create an odd and arresting look at Nico/Christa in the final few years of her life.

The film's ace-in-the-hole is its superb cast, beginning with star Trine Dyrholm (above), whom we are more used to seeing in much more glamorous roles (from The Commune to A Royal Affair and Troubled Water). Dyrholm is glammed-down to the max; she sings her own songs here, too; and what a voice she possesses! This Nico is not an easy person to deal with, but Dyrholm makes her utterly real and often surprising. (The real Nico was a good deal more beautiful than Dyrholm, but no matter: The actress will own this role, I suspect, in perpetuity.)

Drug-addicted bigtime but still able to perform up a storm,  the star is about to tour Europe when the film begins, with a new manager (the fine John Gordon Sinclair, shown below, right: remember Gregory's Girl?) and a new but mostly talented back-up band.

We get to know and care about -- only to the extent necessary, but this is enough -- all of the characters on view via a script that gives each his/her due with without being over-expository or obvious. Nicchiarelli uses a very welcome documentary-like visual approach, which adds a layer of reality all its own, along with the expert period detail of the production design (it's simply there, without having to call attention to itself).

Further, the film has been shot in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1.37 : 1, which helps take us back to the not-so-distant past.  The filmmaker juggles it all -- dialog, story, performances, visuals and period -- so very well that we're hooked from the outset and only grow more impressed and concerned as the movie progresses and characters seem to pair off into interesting duos. The music runs a fascinating gamut, too -- from Nature Boy and These Days to the marvelous Nibelungen.

In the supporting cast is the wonderful Anamaria Marinca (Five Minutes of Heaven, Storm) as the band's violinist, and the gorgeous Sandor Funtek (above, right, of Blue Is the Warmest Color) who plays Nico's son Ari. (Ari is given special thanks by the filmmaker during the end credits). I don't think you need be a fan of Nico to appreciate the movie -- I was certainly not: As a young man, I abhorred all things touched by Warhol -- yet the movie may indeed make you a fan. And of Ms Dyrholm, as well.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a sleek 93 minutes, Nico, 1988 has its U.S. theatrical premiere this coming Wednesday, August 1, in New York City at the newly renovated Film Forum. It will opens in Los Angeles on Friday, August 3, at the Landmark NuArt, and in Santa Barbara at the SBIFF Riviera Theater on August 17. To learn of further playdates across the country, click here. (If you don't find further playdates just now, check back later, once word-of mouth on the film has taken hold.)

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