The musical biopic is a well-established subgenre of film. The decades long list is full of great entries, award-winning titles, and memorable performances. “Nico, 1988” deserves its place among such notable company.
The film from writer and director Susanna Niccharielli follows the last year of the life of Christa Päffgen (Trine Dyrholm), known as Nico. (But she doesn’t like to be called that, as she tells a DJ during an interview.) The German singer/songwriter lived the high life in the 1960s and 70s. But by 1988, after years of addiction and self-destruction, Christa was working on rebuilding herself and her relationships. Particularly with the son she didn’t get to raise.
Where many similarly themed films utilize flashbacks, or tell the story in mostly linear progression from the beginning to the end, Niccharielli keeps the focus largely in the present. Or, at least, in the present of 1988. Everything we need to learn about Nico we do through conversations, emotions, and by witnessing the culmination of a life of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
That’s not to say that “Nico, 1988” is devoid of flashbacks. In fact, the film uses archival concert footage of Nico, intermixed with cuts of Dyrholm performing as the singer to connect the audience to different points in her life. These interjections help develop Nico the entertainer, while the main parts of the film develop Christa the woman.
Trine Dyrholm’s performance is mesmerizing. She doesn’t transform herself physically to mimic Nico’s appearance, which, perhaps, accentuates her performance. Instead of a caricature of this woman, or an impression, Dyrholm embodies her emotions. She softens the tender moments and captures the exasperation of a woman who has lived hard. Of someone who is mostly known only for the shallowest pieces of herself. Dyrholm uses that to bring the audience see her more fully. To dig beneath the surface and see her as someone with a lot of great stories, and even greater regrets.
Dyrholm’s fearless work is matched by a strong supporting cast that includes John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca, and Sandor Funtek. Funtek, in particular, brings an added level of weight to the story as Ari, the son Christa’s lifestyle could not accommodate. The two share an emotional heft that, in the hands of other actors, might have felt stunted and less sincere. Christa has a lot of regrets, but she doesn’t feel the need to apologize for them. She doesn’t feel the need to apologize for anything in life. Not for her choices, not for what her life has become. And not for the results of that life. She accepts what it is and expects others to do the same. This adds contention to an estranged relationship, but is also such a real portrait of so many familial relationships.
Many biopics seem either intent on celebrating or condemning the life of the subject. What Niccharielli does with Nico’s story, though, is to simply and succinctly give us the portrait of someone who lived on her own terms. Someone who didn’t seek the approval of others. It wasn’t always the best choice for those around her, but it was who she was.
That is an important message to take from this film. “Nico, 1988” doesn’t seek to turn Christa Päffgen into a deified icon or a cautionary tale. It simply presents a woman that is familiar to many, but unknown to most. And it does so beautifully.