Film Reviews

Blond Angel's Death Song

Why do we glamourize beautiful people who willfully crash and burn, especially when they choose heroin to fuel their self-immolation? It's not as if they're doing society a favor by testing the narcotic's effects on the human body. It's no secret that junkies as a rule do not enjoy long, productive lives. Yet heroin use retains an almost mystical allure in certain circles, especially among trendy white rock and rollers who associate its use with artistic credibility. "Heroin addicts make better music," claim such believers, who point to a long, illustrious, and expanding list of musicians who answered the drug's siren call, from those it killed outright (Billie Holiday, Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin) to those whose deaths it probably hastened (Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon) to those who nearly died but have since kicked the habit (Lou Reed, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler) to those whose recent battles with the needle threaten to prematurely extinguish their careers, not to mention their lives (Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, the Breeders' Kelley Deal, Ministry's Al Jourgensen and Mike Scaccia). It's a proven losing proposition, yet every day tens of thousands of zombies from Seattle to Miami Beach buy into that same lame myth of romantic self-destruction.

Heroin did not help Christa P„ffgen -- popularly known as Nico -- make better music. The German-born actress/model/rock diva, whose flawless Teutonic features bought her considerably more than fifteen minutes of fame as Andy Warhol's consummate blank-generation superstar, became a heroin addict in the Seventies not because she thought it was glamourous, but because, like so many other misguided souls, she thought it would validate her as an artist. And Nico desperately wanted to be remembered as an artist or a singer or even just a snaggle-toothed, needle-tracked junkie A anything but just a beautiful face. Her problem was that she was too lazy to really do anything. So she dabbled with modeling and hated it. She took a few halfhearted stabs at acting. She flitted from Berlin to Paris to London to New York City before Warhol stepped into the void, casting her in his film The Chelsea Girls and applying her like window dressing to his snarling proto-art-rock band the Velvet Underground. It is a testimony to band leader/songwriter Lou Reed's genius that he miraculously found a way to tailor Nico's flat, sepulchral contralto to hauntingly memorable melodies in Velvets standards such as "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Femme Fatale," and "I'll Be Your Mirror." Those songs stand as her best work, and they all pre-date Nico's love affair with the needle.

Susanne Ofteringer's dirgelike new documentary Nico Icon never penetrates Nico's ice-princess faaade. The film suggests that its subject remains an enigma because Nico stubbornly refused to think, say, or do anything of substance. She was a woman of profound emptiness. There was no there there. Nico drifted her entire adult life, from country to country, lover to lover, artistic medium to artistic medium. She followed up her Velvet warbling with fourteen solo albums of excruciatingly bad junkie pop. Every young heroin user who believes that the drug somehow enhances the creative process and helps you make better music should be forced to sit through the Nico oeuvre.

Ofteringer has claimed in several interviews that her intent in making the documentary was to tell "a story about a very strong woman, not just this muse of famous men." Yet the woman who emerges here is a blank slate begging to be scrawled upon. Ofteringer's words notwithstanding, Nico Icon defines its subject in terms of the men whose paths she crossed. Bob Dylan introduced Nico to Warhol. She walked on the wild side with Lou Reed. She dallied with Jackson Browne. She shared a bed, a death wish, and a cornucopia of hard drugs with self-described "soul brother" Jim Morrison. She bore a son named Ari by Alain Delon, although the French actor refused to acknowledge his paternity. When Nico, realizing she wasn't cut out for domesticity, left the kid with Delon's mother, Delon pitched a fit. The celluloid hero cut off all communication with his own mom for the crime of taking the boy in. What a guy. Later she lived with filmmaker Philippe Garrel, who produced his own Nico biopic, 1992's I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar. Reed, Browne, and Jimmy Page wrote songs for her, while Dylan and Leonard Cohen penned tunes about her. Nico even appropriated her name from a lover, Greek photographer/filmmaker Nico Papatakis. Remove the names of famous men from Nico's life story and you don't have much left to discuss.

"[Nico] had no inner life," recalls Warhol protege Viva. "She had no interests. There was nothing to talk to her about."

Except heroin. Smack was the one constant for the unhappy woman with the impossibly high cheekbones, haunting eyes, and pouty lips, the woman who wanted the world to take her seriously on her own terms, even if she wasn't exactly sure what those terms were. On heroin Nico could forget about growing up fatherless amid the debris of post-World War II Germany. Heroin neutralized her daunting looks and established common ground with the jaded, drug-scarfing crowd of artists, poseurs, crazies, and assorted hangers-on who frequented Warhol's Manhattan studio known as the Factory. Over the years, as her health and her appearance deteriorated, Nico took pride in her heroin-induced pallor and rotting fangs. Never a candidate for mother of the year -- she fed her infant son Ari a steady diet of potato chips before turning him over to the care of Delon's mom -- Nico introduced Ari to junk while he was in his late teens; later, as Ari lay in a hospital bed in a heroin-induced coma, Nico demonstrated the depth of her maternal concern when she asked if she could tape the sound of his life-support machine for a record.

Small wonder that Nico found a kindred spirit in Jim Morrison. They were both celebrated rock vocalists who couldn't, in the traditional sense, sing worth a damn. They were both extraordinarily attractive. They shared an obsession with death, a romantic view of self-destruction, a passion for heroin, and a penchant for pretentious poetry. On their first date, the Lizard King wooed Nico with a stoned ritual that made her wonder if he was going to kill her; she fell for him immediately. But Morrison had the good career sense to go ahead and actually die, rather than sonorously drone on about death until you wanted to kill him. Nico's timing wasn't as sharp. She burned out and faded away, sucking in the Seventies and Eighties as a touring cabaret freak show, a washed-up diva/junkie schlepping her harmonium from one nightclub gig to another to sing paeans to dissolution and spiritual emptiness, odes to the void. Ironically, according to Ari, Nico had been off heroin for two years when, in 1988, at the age of 49, she fell off a bicycle on the sunny Spanish island of Ibiza and suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Nico Icon takes Ari's word for it, although rumors persist that the true cause of death was an overdose of methadone and alcohol.

Nico Icon does not judge Nico; it doesn't need to. By simply presenting a diverging range of opinions from those who knew her and combining those posthumous interviews with previously recorded footage of Nico (ranging from a rough but priceless home movie of the Velvet Underground's first public performance at an American Psychiatric Association Convention to a spooky 1986 interview with the disintegrating yet still eye-catching death angel), the film allows Nico's own surviving friends, lovers, and family to paint a harrowing portrait of a wasted life. But as Nico's clueless and obviously disturbed son Ari's words mesh with those of his mother's former lovers to tell the pathetic story of a truly appalling woman, the wistful edge in their voices suggests that even in death the golden-girl-gone-bad holds them in her thrall.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony