It’s not a popular opinion in certain cinema milieux, but I sometimes get weary at the enormous number of documentaries that fill out the programs of the major film festivals. Yes, there are great documentaries and documentarians of all stripes – but I’m not complaining here about Frederick Wiseman, Agnès Varda or Jean-Pierre Gorin. I just feel that I’ve seen way too many docos that cruise along on the novelty value of their subject matter – an eccentric personality, or a famous film director, or an unknown piece of social history – but which are not really very good or compelling as films.
And if it’s not a finally rather bland, TV-style documentary, then, at the other extreme, it’s some precious attempt at the genre known as essay-film – often incredibly self-conscious, grindingly intellectualised pieces that interrogate, past the point of all endurance, their own existence as films and as documentaries; works with no breath of cinéma-vérité life in them whatsoever.
Among the very worst viewing experiences of my entire life, in fact, was a feature-length essay-film I saw in Madrid in the early 1990s, with the modest title of Where is Memory (Chris Gallagher, Canada, 1993). It presented a gaunt narrator-figure walking about, a man with “no memory” of the Nazi past. But slowly, he starts to collect the old footage lying about in musty rooms and he looks deep into it, gazing at the monuments and learning how to “read” them. So, about 50 minutes later, this guy runs around with a gun in his hand, seeing the newsreels of Hitler in his mind, and hoping to assassinate der Führer. Well, maybe it would have looked OK in an ultra low-budget, SF time-travel movie of the 1950s; here, it was an atrocious conceit.
However, at the Melbourne Film Festival of 1995, I was drawn to the music doco Nico Icon. The life story and career path of Nico is an amazing tale, and this film tackles it in an impressionistic, zig-zag fashion. We start in the ugly final phase: Nico on stage in 1988, looking about 100 years old after a long romance with hard drugs. We hear from James Young, author of the remarkable memoir Songs They Never Play on the Radio, who toured as part of Nico’s band in the ‘80s and lived to tell the tale: a tale of hair-raising scenes of life on the road, the panicky stashing of drugs at national borders, knives being pulled, you name it. Young’s stories are funny and horrible all at once; he is clearly still infected by the dark romance of celebrating the glorious failures of life and art alike. And Susanne Ofteringer’s film (it seems to be her only directorial credit) really gets inside this depressed but fascinating mood.
We race back to the 1950s and Nico’s teenage career as a model (she was born Christa Päffgen). We glimpse her in magazines, TV ads, some forgotten French film about the high life, and one very famous Italian film about the high life – namely, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). In a clip from this, Marcello Mastroianni actually calls out to her: “Aay, Nico!”. So she was an early supermodel celebrity. But she rebelled against all that, and this is where her story starts to become gripping. Nico claims to have hated her beauty, and did everything to destroy that glamorous image. In an 1986 interview, she confesses to only one regret: that she was not born a man.
And soon enough, by the second half of the 1960s, she had become another kind of superstar: an anti-superstar, full of morose, sullen, pre-punk glamour, in the artistic circle of Andy Warhol and his famous Factory. This is the era of the Velvet Underground, and later of her contact with Jim Morrison, where Nico’s singing career lurched from its folky, Dylanesque beginning into an endless, magnificent, atonal drone. This was the style that Nico developed in her solo albums of the 1970s and ‘80s, and it is here paid a moving tribute by her faithful collaborator, John Cale.
Nico, like (in another cultural sphere) Yoko Ono, gave herself to the art of the underground, the avant-garde. We get a few tantalising clips from the florid experimental psychodrama films she made with her partner Philippe Garrel in the 1970s, works with cosmic titles like The Inner Scar (1972) and An Angel Passes (1975). But, by this stage, we’re deep into the drug-use era, with its murky career tunnels and long decline to death.
One by one, the doco lines up the walking wounded of this history: an ex-lover who curses her, an aunt who sways and cries as she listens to an Velvet underground song; the sad mother-in-law who got custody of the Nico’s son (an incident depicted in Garrel’s own Nico screen-memoir of 1991, J’entends plus la guitare) conceived (it is claimed) with Alain Delon during their brief affair … and, finally, that son himself, Ari, now a strung-out young man also addicted to drugs, wandering the streets and indulging the Gothic romance of his mother’s mythic burn-out of a life.
Nico Icon is a cool, chilling, utterly captivating testament to a myth.
© Adrian Martin June 1995