In the most exciting scene of “Nico, 1988,” the former singer for the Velvet Underground walks onto the stage of a gloomy outlaw performance space in Communist Prague. She’s in a foul mood (she hates Communists); we’ve already seen her throw a restaurant tantrum in which she shouted for someone — anyone — to get her some heroin. Wearing leather pants and a studded bracelet, Trine Dyrholm, the 45-year-old Danish actress who plays Nico, looks like a long-black-haired, coldly fierce erotic-zombie version of Roseanne Barr. As she stares down the crowd, launching into a shockingly charged rendition of “My Heart Is Empty,” her hate erupts like a rock ‘n’ roll volcano. Did the real Nico ever give a performance this full of animal energy? Even if she didn’t, “Nico, 1988” is authentic enough, in its moods and music, to earn the sequence. For a moment, the film becomes a vintage pop biopic, baptized in the cleansing fire of release.
The rest of the time, it sticks close to the desperate, scattered psychodrama of Nico’s last two years — the period captured, with frightening close-up voyeurism, in the 1995 documentary “Nico Icon.” In that movie, we seemed to be watching Nico destroy herself, but “Nico, 1988” takes a more casual and, at times, even jaunty attitude toward its heroine’s proudly functional middle-aged depravity. Nico was born Christa Päffgen, and in the film just about everyone calls her Christa, making you realize that Nico is a character she’s still playing but no longer believes in. “Nico, 1988,” which is in English, understands the mystique of her anti-mystique, and deserves to attract a small but fascinated audience on the specialty circuit.
Christa shoots heroin into her bruised ankle as if she were having a snack. She gives interviews in which she repeats, like a jaded mantra, how bored she is of being asked about her days as the Teutonic android chanteuse of the Velvet Underground — a legitimate gripe, perhaps, except that she seems cut off from any awareness that if she hadn’t been a member of the Velvet Underground, she’d have no legend to fall from. She reigns over her band members in their van rides around Europe, where they stop at dank clubs to perform Nico’s listless cabaret doom rock. And, with rare urgency, she tried to save her son: the one she had with the French actor Alain Delon (who never acknowledged him), and who she gave up after he turned four. He is now a heroin addict just like his mother, and she gets him released from the hospital and takes him on the road, trying, in her ultimate-bad-role-model way, to rescue him.
“Nico, 1988” is too thinly focused to be a major underground-music-star drama, but its Italian writer-director, Susanna Nicchiarelli, knows just what she’s doing. There’s no false story, and she takes us close to Nico’s tattered charisma, and to the haphazard rituals of her life, all to figure out what made her tick. Christa is running from her myth, yet she polishes it every time she drops a pensée like “I’ve been at the top, I’ve been at the bottom: Both places are empty.” Her formative event, which we’re shown glimpses of, was witnessing the end days of the bombing of Berlin when she was a child during World War II. That might hit anyone hard, but the thing about Nico is that she thought it was beautiful. No wonder her stage act is like a war zone. She’s trying to keep Berlin burning.
We also see flash-cut home movies of Nico in her high-cheekboned downtown Andy/Vogue prime. The fact that, in her late 40s, she seems to revel in her ravaged looks comes off, more than it did then, as a feminist statement: She won’t be defined as a mask of beauty. Plus, she loves food and drugs too much, a quality the film treats with a refreshing lack of judgment. Dyrholm’s performance is a powerhouse of authenticity. Her moroseness is mesmerizing, but she also gives Nico a tense intelligence, and her singing is uncanny. She gets the way that Nico would stretch out notes with robotic flatness only to humanize them with a flicker of her German accent. Her lugubrious chant-singing was drained of emotion, except for the moments when it was saturated with it.
There are other good actors here, like John Gordon Sinclair, as the smart-geek club owner who becomes Nico’s de facto manager and gradually falls in love with her, or Sandor Funtek as her son, Ari, a winsome chap who relapses, then recovers. Nico, following that moment of truth, cleans herself up, and you can tell because when she’s on methadone, Dyrholm smiles — fully — for the first time. That’s when we see what the junk is doing to her.
The movie ends with the trip that she and Ari made to Ibiza in July 1988. She seems healthy and (dare one say it about Nico?) happy, but as the end title informs us, on that trip she crashed her bike and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. (For some reason, the title doesn’t mention that she crashed because she suffered a heart attack.) It’s a sad ending indeed, since “Nico, 1998” more or less convinces you that Christa Päffgen, despite the legend she created, had at that point rejected the decadence that fueled her and was closer to life than death.