Friday, October 5, 2012

Everybody's Icon: "Nico Icon" (1995)

Susanne Ofteringer writes and directs a haunting documentary about the life of pop icon Nico.

Nico was born Christa Paffgen in Germany, her father was killed under mysterious circumstances during World War II. She was a gorgeous woman, hitting the modeling circuit right away, and ending up in Paris, where she was named Nico after showing dislike for her own name. From Paris, Nico headed to New York, and Andy Warhol's Factory. She was quiet, gorgeous, and full of hatred of her own beauty. A fling with French actor Alain Delon produced a son whom Delon would not acknowledge, and the boy was raised by Delon's parents. Nico was teamed with the band the Velvet Underground, where her deep accented voice complemented Lou Reed and John Cale's new sound.

Nico went solo, and drifted from lover to lover, including Jim Morrison and a very young Jackson Browne. She continued to record music, throwing in strange songs that would be lyrical, and sometimes difficult. Nico began taking heroin, even getting her son Ari hooked on it, and cleaned up too late before dying of a brain hemorrhage at 58.

Ofteringer's documentary is simply riveting. She begins with Nico's last days touring in the mid-1980's. She looks old, tired, and her keyboardist James Young describes how she had needle tracks running up her arms, often pulled a knife on people over the slightest (or no) provocation, her teeth were rotting, and she would shove heroin up her anus at border crossings so to avoid arrest.

Ofteringer then traces Nico's beginnings, getting incredible interviews with a favorite aunt who raised her, a manager, Cale, Paul Morrissey, Browne, and even her son, Ari. The film is only sixty-seven minutes, but Ofteringer says more than enough without dragging the tragic story out. Footage of Nico's final years is especially difficult to watch, as she gamely tries to sing the Doors' "The End." It is not a great cover, but the pain in her voice is honest.

Nico did not like people, did not like herself, and used her anger and imaginary lesbianism to build a wall around herself. This is one sad life, and after watching "Ciao Manhattan" and seeing Edie Sedgwick self-destruct onscreen, you begin to wonder how "glorious" was it to be a part of Andy Warhol's Factory, and the hard drug scene in general. Nico's songs are hard to forget, as is her deep voice, and I may try to seek out some of her recordings. For me, that is the true test of whether a documentary works- if my interest is peaked after the film is over.

My interest is peaked, and I want to know more about this icon. Truly an exceptional piece of work. (* * * * *) out of five stars.