Nico is most well known as singer with the Velvet Underground but she was also a Warhol superstar, songwriter, model and actress. Nico Icon tells the story of how this otherworldly beautiful vamp turned into a middle aged broke junkie.
The woman who would become Nico was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany, in 1938, almost a year before World War Two broke out. With her blonde beauty she looked like the perfect Aryan child. Her aunt, interviewed in the documentary, described her as “a lady at eleven years old…hands like milk and glass…”. Nico started modeling at about fourteen and moved to Paris a couple of years later, working for magazines like Vogue and Elle. (She was also the cover model for Bill Evan’s album Moon Beams, trivia fans!) She was christened Nico by photographer Herbert Tobias as he felt her given name wasn’t glamorous enough for modelling.
In 1959 Nico scored a small role in Fellini’s Dolce Vita as herself and she began to divide her time between Paris and New York, taking acting classes with Lee Strasberg. She met Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones in New York and he in turn introduced her to Andy Warhol who was managing the Velvet Underground at the time. Andy forcibly installed Nico as the band’s lead singer much to the disgust of the other band members who were not fans of her out of tune deep voice. Nico’s time with the Velvets was short and afterwards she went on to record as a solo artist which she did until her death in 1988 aged 49. (Incidentally I have never been a fan of Nico’s singing but her version of The Doors’ “The End” which is included in the documentary is a masterpiece – discordant, unsettling, strident and brilliant.)
Nico became heavily involved with drugs, particularly heroin, and I wonder if this contributed to the perception of her as cold, distant and unknowable. Throughout the documentary people comment on her lack of emotional connection, her lack of passion and the fact that she didn’t seem really interested in anything. I think she came across as uneducated and perhaps slightly vacuous. She certainly was incredibly beautiful but I think the blonde facade was actually a front for nothing and her looks were possibly the most interesting thing about her.
One thing’s for sure, she certainly wouldn’t win any awards for Mother of the Year. She abandoned her son Ari to the care of his paternal grandparents and when he was older she introduced him to heroin, effectively turning her son into a junkie. When Ari was in hospital on life support from a heroin overdose, all Nico wanted to do was to record the sound of the machines for her next record.
Nico Icon contains interviews with her son, Sterling Morrison and John Cage from the Velvet Underground, her aunt, her lovers, and acquaintances from her Factory days including Billy Name and Viva. The musicians in her band tell the story of life on the road with Nico which was chaotic due to heavy heroin use with problems at customs, violence, etc. The documentary to me felt a little light, perhaps that’s because the subject matter wasn’t a particularly deep person, but Nico Icon is worth watching if you’re a counterculture enthusiast or a Nico fan.