Nico Icon

Directed by Susanne Ofteringer

"Regrets? I have no regrets. Except that I was born a woman instead of a man. That’s my only regret."

-- Nico, in an interview two years before her death at age 49.

That line perfectly sums up how far ahead of her time Nico was, realizing how much what she was immediately judged on (her appearance) was inherently gender specific, and how much she hated herself for her physical beauty when it was her other talents she wished to be recognized for, but by the end of this film you’ll be hard-pressed to imagine what those other talents might be. Naomi Wolf could use her as a textbook example of how being born physically beautiful can be detrimental if one’s beauty is so striking that it eclipses one’s accomplishments. In fact, "Nico Icon" is almost a misnomer for what the film fully illustrates. "Nico Iconoclast" would be a more apt title.

A classic Teutonic beauty, all long legs, long neck, high cheekbones and icy disposition, Nico came to treat her physical beauty as a curse and spent her life trying her best to destroy what magnetized attention towards her because she had the intelligence to realize that there is no moral worth is getting attention for physical beauty alone because it doesn’t imply any sense of accomplishment. Shattering the hegemony of the beholder. By the end of her life she had successfully managed to destroy her looks to the extent that she had been absolutely ravaged by her steady diet of heroin over the years and apparently was proud of her intravenous tracks on her arms and rotten teeth.

A childhood victim of the second World War, when she was four years old her father was exterminated by the Nazis when a battle wound resulted in insanity-inducing brain damage. (I also just discovered in Transformer, the recent Victor Bockris biography of Lou Reed, that apparently she was raped by a German soldier as a child.) She was raised by her mother’s sister (what happened to her mother is not adequately explained in the film) and must have felt such deep rooted fears of abandonment that according to one bohemian friend of hers in Paris she apparently never loved anyone, nor was loved by anyone, even though she had many "lovers," everyone from Jim Morrison (whom she called her "soul brother") to Jackson Browne and French film star Alain Delon whom she gave birth to a son with. The most poignant part of the film is when Delon’s mother is interviewed and she explains how Ari, their son, was so neglectfully nourished as a child (Nico used to simply use her own sustenance of potato chips to take care of her baby’s dietary needs as well) that she optioned to "adopt" the boy which precipitated Delon to have his mother "choose" between either he or his son. Delon’s mother chose, obviously, to care for the boy and as a result of that decision Delon has not spoken to his mother in 17 years. When Ari went to live with Nico in Manchester at the age of 18, Nico turned him onto heroin, a substance that seemed to be the be-all and end- all of her life since, according to acquaintances, she had no interests. Nothing excited her about life. At all. (In post-Velvets live performances she frequently covered the Doors song "The End." I highly recommend the live album June 1, 1974 which captures an incredible version of her rendering of that song with John Cale, Kevin Ayers and Brian Eno.)

Lou Reed, leader of the seminal art band The Velvet Underground which Nico sang with at the prompting of Andy Warhol in their first incarnation, is conspicuous in his absence as an interviewee, but apparently was so smitten with Nico that he wrote the song I’ll Be Your Mirror, perhaps one of the most tender melodies he’s ever written, out of that phrase which she once uttered to him. The circumstances leading up to her leaving The Velvet Underground have always been shadowy, and no real resolution is identified in this film. John Cale attempts to shed some light on the apparently many factors involved which led to her dismissal which primarily boil down to the fact that she couldn’t carry a tune, which is a cop-out, especially for such an experimental band. Sure, she wouldn’t have been able to sing with, say, the Mamas and the Papas, but the voice she did have was full of expression and nuance, and her phrasing albeit erratic was very original, and the few songs she sang with the Velvets (I’ll Be Your Mirror, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Femme Fatale) are seminal classics BECAUSE of her voice, not in spite of it. In fact, a video of a song she recorded before hooking up with the Velvets called I’m Not Saying fully illustrates that what she may have lacked in range was made up for with a very powerful set of pipes to carry a song with. Regardless of the fact that she had no range, Nico’s persona and artistic ambitions, the film makes clear, were unprecedented for female singers at the time: When all the other women in that era were either wearing short skirts or gingham dresses, she was always dressed in either black or white jumpsuits. As a result, Nico blazed the way for everyone from Yoko Ono and Patti Smith to Joanna Went and Diamanda Galas. The implication is that her drug use got so developed that she was more concerned with simply hanging out with Warhol’s Factory crowd at a point when the Velvets wanted to progress as a band rather than just be part of Andy Warhol’s Traveling Circus.

My rating of three and a half stars is two-fold: 1) The director, Susanne Ofteringer, has a visual style similar to those Windows95 commercials that are all the rage these days: arbitrary, yet symbolically weighted, words drifting around onscreen that, frankly, is too chic for it’s own good. This style will appear ludicrously silly before the year is out. And 2) if one is not a fan of The Velvet Underground or has no curiosity for the significance of Andy Warhol to the 20th century I think this film would seem like a waste of celluloid. In fact, Nico comes across as being so unappealing that by the end of the film you start to realize that perhaps, ironically enough, her physical beauty was all she really had going for her. WAS she raped? Does ANYONE she knew have anything nice to say about her? Any fond memories or examples of a tender side whatsoever?

The film is only 72 minutes long, but you can’t really imagine how it could be any longer. The film tracks so much territory that you realize how much Nico did in the fifty years she lived (Vogue magazine, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne, Alain Delon, gasp gasp gasp) and the events of her life seem like so much tragedy that you can’t imagine what the film would be like at a two hour pace. Nico herself would probably express as much cynicism and apathy for the film as she did for her own life.