In the mythology of alt-rock and punk pre-history, Christa Pfäffgen, a.k.a. Nico, is a foundational figurehead. She’s the femme fatale; the cool, amoral alto of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”; the chiseled Teutonic beauty foisted on the Velvet Underground by Andy Warhol; lover to Dylan, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, and more. A very good 1995 documentary was simply called “Nico Icon,” and the title fit.
“Nico, 1988,” written and directed by Italy’s Susanna Nicchiarelli, doesn’t have anything to do with that — or rather, it’s about aftermath, the resilience and bile needed to survive your own fame and the men who get credit for it. Taking place across the last two years of the singer’s life, when Nico was both unrecognizable as her earlier self and was, finally, actually, her real self, it’s a testament to a difficult woman and a paean to the utter bleakness with which she viewed the world.
Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Nico as she was in the late 1980s, no longer svelte, no longer blonde, human wreckage wrangling with a heroin habit and lacking all patience for audiences or interviewers interested only in Lou’s chanteuse. An early flashback in “Nico, 1988” has the young Christa called out by her mother one night late in World War II to gaze upon a glow on the horizon. “Berlin is burning,” Mama says, and the rest of the girl’s life is framed as a restless search to relocate that sense of apocalypse.
The main narrative of Nicchiarelli’s film concerns the singer’s 1986 European tour, a brilliant catastrophe whose concerts either fell apart halfway through or soared on wings of nihilism. In the early 1970s, Nico had released a series of solo records that remain among the grimmest releases of the rock era; unrelenting doomscapes, part Kurt Weill and part existential howl, they prefigure Goth, post-punk, and industrial rock. The film finds her playing these songs to audiences of both the worshipful and the gawkers, with back-up musicians who buy into her mythos — like the doped-up guitarist played by Calvin Demba — or keep their distance (the violinist played by Anamaria Marinca of “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”).
The tour is organized by a Brit named Richard, who coddles Nico more than is good for her (or him) and certainly more than his assistant Laura (Karina Fernandez) can bear. Laura stands in for all the audience members who look at this selfish ogre, with her nightmare music, and instinctively recoil. Richard, who sharp-eyed viewers will recognize in actor John Gordon Sinclair the one-time heartsick teenaged Gregory of “Gregory’s Girl” (1980), only sees a woman dedicated to turning pain into icy, unforgiving art.
It’s Dyrholm’s film, though, and Nicchiarelli’s, and between them the two women do honor to their subject in all her contradictions. The focal points of “Nico, 1988” range from the singer’s self-inflicted problems with her teenage son, Ari (Sandor Funtek) — not to mention Ari’s problems having a mercurial heroin addict for a mother — to the self-absorption that precludes her from appreciating the danger into which her Czechoslovakian fans put themselves simply by showing up to hear her play.
The movie hits familiar beats of bottoming out and recovery, but Dyrholm gives her character a tattered dignity, and Nico’s insistence that she’s more valid as an artist now that she’s on her own, middle-aged and without mentors, is moving whether you like the work or not. It’s only a shame that the work itself isn’t heard in the film; whether because of rights issues or dramatic consistency, only Dyrholm’s voice, not Nico’s, is present on the soundtrack.
“Nico, 1988” is worth a look nevertheless for its portrait of a spirit absolutely unyielding, who expected the worst from life and found cold, beautiful comfort when she got it.
Written and directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli. Starring Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca. At Kendall Square, 93 minutes. R (drug use, language, some sexuality)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.