29 Jul 2018

New Horizons: Nico at the Film Festival

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 29 July 2018

William Dart goes to the movies and investigates a few offerings from the current New Zealand International Film Festival. Inevitably, a new biopic of the German singer Nico is the perfect excuse to revisit Warholian days of Venus in Furs and Femmes Fatales.

Trine Dyrholm as Nico in the film 'Nico, 1988'

Trine Dyrholm as Nico in the film 'Nico, 1988' Photo: Screenshot ex Trailer, Magnolia Pictures

It’s that time of year again.  A highly anticipated fortnight of movie house cheer-up during a particularly grim mid-winter. Currently starting its journey down the country from Auckland is the annual NZ International Film Festival.

Amongst the music-related films, many of which seem to playing only in Auckland and Wellington, you have the chance to join a star-studded road trip in Elvis’s own Cadillac if you book in for Eugene Jarecki’s new movie, The King. It’s tantalizing to wonder whether such name passengers as Chuck D of Public Enemy, Rosanne Cash and M. Ward actually sing — although there’s certainly a lot of talking by all accounts. What might we hear from songwriter John Hiatt who’s also in one of the car’s passenger seats. After all, his 1983 song, Riding with the King, was one of the inspirations for the project.

If you have a hankering to drift back half-a-century and taste the big screen exhilaration of Donn Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, well, it’s there in the festival line-up. A 1968 documentary that’s one of the classic records on celluloid of rock festival culture. What it lacks in the grandeur and cinematic flourishes of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, it makes up for in its much appreciated virtue of being succinct, running at just under 80 minutes compared to Woodstock’s 185.

After 50 years, the highlight of Monterey Pop is still the young Janis Joplin, fronting her Big Brother and the Holding Company band, belting out Big Mama Thornton’s "Ball and Chain". Running the vocal gamut from caressing whisper to guttural scream, it’s a heart-wrench of a performance. It has me, in 2018, finding new admiration for Joplin’s microphone technique. And I’m still fascinated by Pennebaker’s probing obsession with the singer’s fidgety feet in those low-slung heels.

Let’s not forget, either, the dueling counterpoint of Sam Andrew and James Gurley’s guitars, slashing through the soundwaves like Edward Scissorhand’s finger-blades.

Amongst the festival’s musical offerings, one movie stands all by itself: Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 featuring Danish actor Trine Dyrholm in the title role.

This is a biopic, a dramatization of the final year of a German woman whom some met as the uber-cool blonde who famously bumps into Marcello Mastroianni in the street during Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. This was back in 1960, when I was too young to go to R16 movies.  But others met her, and revered her, a little later in 1967, as the cool diva of what I fondly call The Velvet Underground’s Yellow Banana album. One Lou Reed song could have been written about her.

In the film, there are quite a few highways, with Nico's European touring schedule in 1988. At the end, she's about to take her very final trip in Ibiza, riding a bicycle into the village only to be downed by a heart-attack along the way.

When the news came through at the time, I remember thinking back to just two years previously when Nico made her first New Zealand tour, in February 1986, promoted as The Chanteuse of The Velvet Underground.

While advertisements listed His Majesty’s Theatre as the Auckland venue, it turned out to be Ponsonby’s Gluepot due no doubt to the relatively limited ticket sales. Russell Brown, interviewing Nico at the time, pointed out the ironies of her getting an audience of about 400, while Bob Dylan, a few weeks before, had drawn in 40,000 odd.

James Young, the guitarist with Nico’s band, devotes a chapter of his book on the singer to her time in Australia and New Zealand, titled "Down Under Nico". It’s an unsettling story as far as the Gluepot event is concerned, one that hasn’t lingered too vividly in my memory, such was my enchantment to be in the presence of such a legendary idol.

Young talks of most of the audience being high on solvents, with a boisterous bevy of separatist and stroppy lesbians up front. I was in a state of thrall for the whole concert, eyes and ears fixed on Nico at her harmonium.

Nico’s Desertshore album, her third, contains the song that, for me, defines the singer at her gothic best. Back in 1970, "Janitor of Lunacy" seemed to spring from the darkest soul of her harmonium. Whether it was a plea, an incantation, a summoning or even an exorcism, it would always be a powerful solo turn in concert.

"Janitor of Lunacy" is one song that leaves questions unanswered in the Nico 1988 movie, when it’s opened out to full band, delivering what sounds like an uncomfortable meld of classic Velvet Underground with more recent world music, bouncing percussion putting in an awkward rhythmic straitjacket.

This is one example of Susanna Nicchiarelli’s film transforming a cherished Nico anthem into something else. But on the other hand, I defy anyone not to be caught up by Dyrholm’s fiery performance.

Hear all these tracks and more from the soundtrack to the film by clicking on the 'Listen' link above.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'20th Century Fox Fanfare' (Newman) – Studio orchestra
Music from the Golden Age
(Varese Sarabande)

'Riding with the King' (Hiatt) – John Hiatt
Riding with the King

'Ball and Chain' (Thornton) – Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company
Monterey Pop, Movie Soundtrack
(Monterey Foundation)

'Femme Fatale' (Reed) – The Velvet Underground, ft Nico
Peel Slowly and See

'Niconbike' (Ciliega) – Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, ft Trine Dyrholm
Nico, 1988, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'These Days' (Browne) – Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, ft Trine Dyrholm
Nico, 1988, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'These Days' (Browne) – Nico
Chelsea Girl

'Nibelungen' (Nico) – Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, ft Trine Dyrholm
Nico, 1988, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'Nibelungen' (Nico) – Nico
The Frozen Borderline 1968-1970

Interview “We talked about Chelsea Girl…”  – Nico talking to anonymous interviewer
Nico – Icon

'Identify My Glance' (Ciliega) – Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, ft Trine Dyrholm
Nico, 1988, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'Le Petit Chevalier' (Nico) – Nico, ft Ari Päffgen
The Frozen Borderline 1968-1970

'Janitor of Lunacy' (Nico) – Nico
The Frozen Borderline 1968-1970

'Janitor of Lunacy' (Nico) – Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, ft Trine Dyrholm
Nico, 1988, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'Nature Boy' (Ahbez) – Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, ft Trine Dyrholm
Nico, 1988, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'My Funny Valentine' (Rodgers/Hart) – Nico
Camera Obscura
(Beggars Banquet)

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