Performance

Secret Side

Susanna Nicchiarelli, Nico, 1988, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes. Nico (Trine Dyrholm).

THE FIRST TWO DECADES of the twenty-first century have taught us that, in the future, everyone who already was famous for fifteen minutes will be exhumed from the archives and remixed, reissued, or rebooted. In an age of curated ephemera mediated by the cliquish logic of hipster exclusivity, I’m surprised that Nico’s face doesn’t cross my Tumblr dashboard more often. Then again, I mostly follow gay porn blogs on Tumblr. At this timely juncture arrives Nico, 1988, a new biopic written and directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli, with Trine Dyrholm in a spectacular, uncanny performance as Nico. The film is great—you should see it. Dyrholm doesn’t really look like Nico, but she becomes Nico, her eyes blazing with equal parts intensity and isolation.

For too many people Nico is still simply the & Nico of the Velvet Underground’s first album: the blond model-cum-Factory It Girl who took a brief turn as Lou Reed’s muse and was featured on the album at the insistence of its “producer,” Andy Warhol. In this story, Nico is a delicate chanteuse singing words written by a cool, grizzled man, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is her apex. But Nico is about as much a footnote to Reed as Yoko Ono is to John Lennon. It wasn’t until she left Warhol’s entourage and stopped touring with the Velvets that she began to make the strange, inimitable solo albums, full of odd harmonies and Medieval melodic motifs, that made her so influential in the later twentieth century. Don’t think Nancy Sinatra before and after Lee Hazlewood—think Scott Walker before and after Tilt (1995). Nico, 1988 explores the singer’s troubled final years, beginning with a radio interview in which she declares that her music career started after she left the VU.

The night following the film’s New York premiere, an eclectic group of musicians gathered at Le Poisson Rouge to celebrate the singer in an evening curated by The Creative Independent’s Brandon Stosuy. Thirty years after Nico’s death, the internet has finally provided us with language to express what, in retrospect, Nico always was: a mood. So much of her artistry was about preternatural effects—the stilted English, the echoing Teutonic intonation, the way her harmonium merged with the rest of the instrumentation to form a frozen, glimmering curtain of sound. I was expecting more of the night’s performers to try and sound like Nico— to imitate rather than invoke—but the evening’s producers wisely preempted that tendency by letting each artist perform one or two originals alongside their Nico covers. One of the hallmarks of a great cover is that it sits so effectively alongside an artist’s originals that you can’t tell it’s a cover if you don’t already know the song, and throughout the night Nico’s influence felt organic rather than, well, performative. The words were the same, but the mood was different. Marissa Nadler’s “Afraid” (with Paul Wallfisch on piano) reminded us that there are actual songs behind Nico’s shimmering, gloomy recordings; Lizzi Bougatsos (of Gang Gang Dance) transformed “Nibelungen” into a radiant, frenetic workout; US Girls wove samples from interviews, some quoted in the film, into a haunted, minimal take on the Nico signature “Janitor of Lunacy.”

Only one artist approached the night mimetically: Dyrholm, the film’s Nico, who performed the two songs that soundtrack the movie’s most powerful dramatic moments. The first, “My Heart Is Empty,” from Nico’s final album, Camera Obscura (1985), was merely excellent. The second was a spine-tingling version of “My Only Child,” a haunted, pleading madrigal from 1970’s Desertshore. Dyrholm began over a droning guitar, only to be interrupted by a burst of audio static across the PA. “Oh,” she said as she stopped the song. “She [Nico] doesn’t like it.” After a brief adjustment they began again, and this time the room was flooded with electric intensity. The essence of Nico’s magic was never shock, it was awe.

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