Interview

Nico’s Story Is Much Bigger Than The Velvet Underground. Susanna Nicchiarelli Is Here To Tell It.

Read our interview with the 'Nico, 1988' director and preview an exclusive clip.

Susanna Nicchiarelli was first drawn to that voice. A low alto, lightly accented, dipping in and out of key, it could have been a man’s voice; after all, the singer’s name was Nico. “I remember being somehow attracted to this voice. It has something,” Nicchiarelli told me. “It said something. It spoke to me, in a way.”

In college in the late ’90s, Nicchiarelli, the writer and director of the new biographical drama Nico, 1988, and several friends began listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico, the seminal 1967 collaboration between Lou Reed’s rock outfit and the much-mythologized German musician, model, and Warhol muse. It was then that Nicchiarelli began to wonder: Did Nico keep making music after 1967?

So she asked her friends, and the reply she received was something like a challenge. “Somebody answered me, ‘Yeah, but it’s impossible to listen to.'” Unfazed, Nicchiarelli sought out Nico’s later solo work — the five albums she recorded after Chelsea Girl, the stuff she made after she had purportedly disappeared.

“I realized I would find two versions of what she became after that experience,” Nicchiarelli said, speaking over the phone from her home in Italy. “One version was: ‘She disappeared, who cares? She wasn’t pretty anymore.’ The other version was: ‘She was one of the most important musicians of the time.'” During this period, Nico underwent a significant physical transformation, gaining weight, dyeing her hair a harsh black, and insisting on going by her birth name, Christa Päffgen, in seeming rejection of her earlier incarnation. (“I was there for my image,” Nico says in the film, summarizing at once her stint with the Velvet Underground and her modeling career.)

It wasn’t until the second half of her life, after Chelsea Girls and Chelsea Girl — the Andy Warhol film and the solo record, written with Jackson Browne, of nearly the same title — that Nico wrote songs for and acted in films by Philippe Garrel, with whom she was in a relationship for a decade. Or that she made some of her most avant-garde and experimental music, which in many ways “started and anticipated” the gothic and New Wave trends, according to Nicchiarelli, and earned her the nickname “priestess of darkness.”

Nicchiarelli began working on Nico, 1988 — which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and enters wide release 8/1 — shortly after the release of her debut narrative feature, 2009’s Cosmonauta. Despite her long-standing interest in Nico’s later period, Nicchiarelli set the film aside for a while because of logistical constraints — “It was a road movie in Europe set in the ’80s with a lot of music in it, so it was complicated,” she explained — and picked it up again after her second feature, La scoperta dell’alba. In the meantime, she had become a mother, and, after a fortuitous Facebook connection with Nico’s former manager Alan Wise, she had gotten in touch with Ari, the musician’s son with French actor Alain Delon. A long interview with Ari led to a rewrite of the script that further emphasized Nico’s relationship with her son, whom Nicchiarelli cast as the primary anchor in her life.

“In all the biographies and every time Nico is mentioned in other movies, it’s thanks to who she slept with and how famous were the people she slept with,” Nicchiarelli said. But “the relationship that was really central in Nico’s life was Ari, was her son.” (He repeatedly told Nicchiarelli, and others, that his mother was “a star,” a line that made it into the film.)

Despite its title, Nico, 1988 actually hones in on the final three years of the musician’s life, opening with a radio interview in 1986 and closing, poignantly, with a trip to Ibiza, during which she would die of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 49. The ’60s are but a hazy memory, represented in soft-focused footage from Jonas Mekas’ Walden and Scenes From The Life Of Andy Warhol, a few brief daydreams, and a cover of the Browne-penned “These Days,” sung by actor and musician Trine Dyrholm, who plays Nico; the drama’s unremitting focus on these final episodes of her career, in the hands of a woman writer, director, and cinematographer (Girlhood’s Crystel Fournier), recasts the myth, already inscribed in the popular imagining by the late ’80s, independent of the men with whom Nico was affiliated during her ’60s ascent.

Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm’s Nico is a woman who desires control, even when it seems to elude her — either as a result of her own vices (in one scene, unable to acquire heroin in Cold War-era Prague, she lashes out at her musicians on stage) or of the unavoidable sexism she confronted throughout her career. In an early scene, which reenacted an actual interview Nico did in 1986, a radio deejay, describing her as “Lou Reed’s femme fatale,” asks her to revisit her work with the Velvet Underground, nearly two decades on. She declines to discuss Lou Reed, only referring to her relationship with another famous male musician — Jim Morrison, of the Doors — to explain that he encouraged her to continue pursuing music in 1968. The deejay pursues his line of questioning, hypothesizing that the ’60s must have been the best time of Nico’s life; “We took a lot of LSD,” she responded, pithily. “I loved that answer,” Nicchiarelli said. “It was like, dismissing the whole ’60s thing in one sentence.”

For Nicchiarelli, Nico, 1988 is a corrective to the prevailing narrative of Nico’s fade into obscurity. “It was a way of turning around the cliché of being famous and then declining,” she said. “With Nico’s story, it was completely the opposite — it was being famous, and then becoming somebody.”

Watch a scene from Nico, 1988 and read our Q&A with Nicchiarelli below.

STEREOGUM: “These Days” is the first song that plays in the film — was that always a natural choice? Why was that the first musical statement?

SUSANNA NICCHIARELLI: “These Days” comes from Nico’s first album, and it’s the only album where she didn’t write her own songs and she didn’t write the lyrics. “These Days” was written by Jackson Browne, but what is incredible it fit perfectly the film I had in mind. I think it represents perfectly the final years of Nico much more than those [early] years, and I think there was something incredible there that happened between Jackson Browne and Nico that he understood about her, that was already there, somehow, even if Nico was 25, 28.

STEREOGUM: What do you think that thing was?

NICCHIARELLI: I don’t know. I don’t know. But I think he was able to write a song that she could have sung 30 years later. There’s something in those lyrics that seemed to be perfect for my film, and at the same time, it is very strange that she sung that song when she was very young. Anyways, that’s why I chose that song for the beginning.

STEREOGUM: There are two different versions of “Big In Japan” in the film.

NICCHIARELLI: Yes.

STEREOGUM: There’s the original Alphaville track, and then Trine covers it during the end credits. Why was that an important song for the film?

NICCHIARELLI: When they’re crossing the border from Czechoslovakia to Poland, I wanted to have an ’80s pop piece coming out of the radio. It had to be plausible that it came out of an Eastern European radio. It had to be something very distant from Nico’s music. It had to be something that talked about that moment in history and that was distant from Nico’s music, and I wanted the same song to be re-sung by Trine in a gothic version that could be somehow like the film — a gothic version of the ’80s. And, of course, I needed a good piece. I needed a strong piece.

“Big In Japan” was good and strong from many points of view. First of all, it deals with the issue of being famous, and it’s very ’80s: They’re saying, well, I don’t care, I’m big in Japan, [as if] that could compensate not being big where you are. So it’s about fame and the emptiness of the concept. It’s a German band, and Nico was German; it’s set in the Zoogarten, in West Berlin, which is the neighborhood where Nico grew up. In the ’80s, they had a huge problem with heroin there, so it has some lightness and superficiality to it because it’s a little pop song, but actually, it has much more depth in its lyrics and in its story. “Big In Japan” has many levels, and that’s what makes that piece very interesting.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you wanted a gothic piece at the end that would sort of echo how the film is a gothic version of the ’80s.

NICCHIARELLI: I wanted a gothic version of an ’80s pop song, which I think is something that represents the film very much, because the film is set in the ’80s but it has a bit of that gothic look.

STEREOGUM: Completely — that was something I was curious about. Were you trying to reflect Nico’s musical style in the visuals of the film?

NICCHIARELLI: What I was really looking for was the VHS quality of the ’80s. The lights and everything seemed so glam at the time when we were living it, but then, if you look back, that second half of the ’80s is the tackiest moment. If we look at the quality of the Super 8 or 8mm old movies of the ’60s, they look beautiful. But if we look at the home movies of the ’80s, on VHS, they’re horrible today. There was something extremely decadent about that image. Hedonism was winning, and everyone thought it was the best moment. But there’s [also] something pathetic about that image that each of us sensed being very pretty, but is actually very tacky. I wanted to put Nico inside this VHS world.

STEREOGUM: Midway through the film Nico says, “I’ve been at the top; I’ve been at the bottom. Both places are empty.” And then, her landlord says, “‘My Heart Is Empty,’ your best song.” I think, maybe, the highs and lows for her audience might have been different from how she perceived it — what to you, coming out of this film, were the highs and lows for her?

NICCHIARELLI: I think the bottom, of course, was heroin. She was perfectly aware that that was the lowest she could go and it was dangerous and she was hurting herself and that she wasn’t absolutely in control. It seems like she was a woman who liked to be in control. The top, for her, was the moment when she was dealing with the most famous people, in the ’60s — when she was modeling and then she was making films and she was making a lot of money, when she sang with the Velvet Underground. [But] the feeling is that she was never really comfortable in those shoes. She was never really in control there either, whereas she got more in control when she changed her image, to erase the icon image somehow. She dyed her hair black and she wore baggy black clothes and people called her the “priestess of darkness.”

STEREOGUM: Nico is frequently referenced in the context of her relationships with men during that period — Brian Jones, Lou Reed, Alain Delon. Do you think, as a woman filmmaker, you had a particular inclination to subvert that narrative?

NICCHIARELLI: Being a woman director of course influences you in reading the whole story of Nico. I did act in my first movie and in my second movie, but not because I was pretty. I find something fascinating and extremely tragic about these women who are famous for their beauty, especially when I worked with certain actresses or models. What’s terrible is their career is over when they’re 30, somehow. It’s more or less what people who are in sports do — careers finish very early in sports, because there is a physical reason. It’s a cruel system, and I always find it fascinating when these women find something to do after the modeling experience. But what is cruel about modeling is, it seems that once your career is over and you’re not pretty anymore, that you don’t deserve to be loved anymore, and then your story is not worth being told anymore. The system is much more cruel with a woman model [than it is with male athletes, for example].

As a director, you deal a lot with actresses and you see models; as a woman, you live that. And as a woman, you would like to be different, to use the female image in a different way. Unfortunately, not all women do that — unfortunately, there are women who are even more cruel than men when dealing with the female image. I think that we have the responsibility of overturning this, of changing this dominant imagery according to which a woman somehow deserves to disappear after a certain age. We have to work against that.

STEREOGUM: Or when her relationship with a famous man has ended.

NICCHIARELLI: Of course, yes.

STEREOGUM: There’s a moment early on in the film when Nico tells her manager, her “Jewish lawyer,” as she calls him repeatedly throughout the film, that her dad helped rescue German Jews during World War II. Later on in the film, she says she made that up. I’m curious about that moment given that there were rumors that she made anti-Semitic remarks during her life. Was that something you wanted to get into? What were you trying to do with those scenes?

NICCHIARELLI: That thing in particular is true. She would often feel like she would have to say something about being German if she was dealing with a Jew. She had lived the German defeat as a child, and she was constantly aware and ashamed of that, when everything about the Shoah came out and what had happened, and she dealt with it. Then, she came to the United States, and if you look at the quantity of Jewish men she worked with was very closely acquainted with, she couldn’t be indifferent. I found it very touching that she would make up this story about her father. Often, she would say this thing, and then she would deny it. Her son told me that — she would do it all the time. It was as if she somehow felt she had to apologize. That makes her character very interesting.

In concerts in Germany, she would say things about the German terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof Gang. She was always saying bad things about Nazi Germany. She would say things just to be provocative, and they didn’t make any sense, and my feeling was there was no meaning behind these things. I’m not saying it’s right; of course, it’s completely wrong, but especially when you’re talking about the ’70s, which was a bad, bad moment for Nico — she was badly addicted to heroin — I think it’s a waste of time trying to interpret that.

STEREOGUM: With the movie, were there any specific misconceptions about her life and career you were trying to correct or add more nuance to, aside from pointing out that she didn’t just drop off the map after she was done with the Velvet Underground, after the ’60s were over?

NICCHIARELLI: It’s not about Nico. I wanted to say something about people’s lives — that, in general, they are often much more complicated than what’s in movies. Life is something that goes on in the middle, between two extremes — fame and success, just like failure and empty ideas — and what goes on between these two extremes is much more important than the extremes [themselves], which is usually what biopics are about.

STEREOGUM: I think, if you take away the names “Velvet Underground” and “Nico,” the film could be abstracted to discuss the ways that a fame- and nostalgia-obsessed audience tries to construct mythologies around its idols and how somebody might resist that. If you take the names of the character, the specifics of Nico, out of this, would you be able to extrapolate something bigger?

NICCHIARELLI: Yeah — if you take the names out, what’s left? It’s the story of a woman, of a human being’s life being much more complicated. Real life is not like it is in a movie, and somehow, this film is different from what you expected. Classical biopics all look alike, and you could simply change the main character and put in another one. No matter how different the artists are from each other, then, the films all look like the same film, and that’s not fair to the artist.

It’s not my place to justify Nico and explain everything that she did in her life. I just had a very strong feeling about this woman’s story having an entire part that was untold. Real people are incredibly contradictory. Real people are not characters from a movie; real people can also do things that don’t make any sense. Usually, when you’re working on a script, a character is coherent from the beginning to the end. When you’re dealing with a biographical film, sometimes, you have certain things from the character that you don’t understand, that don’t fit in. Your job is not to justify these things and find a place [for them] — it could also be to decide that those things are not important for telling the nature of the person. The point is, being able to make a different movie from the usual movie about an artist [that] is also saying something about life, about art, about complexity. I think that’s the universal element of the story.

Nico, 1988 is out 8/1.; learn more here. A tribute concert honoring Nico and featuring U.S. Girls, Marissa Nadler, Julie Byrne, and more will take place 8/2 at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC; tickets are available here.