Drop-Dead Beautiful

Andy Warhol and his circle of '60s scenemakers are the focus of a cinematic renaissance. I Shot Andy Warhol detailed the attempted assassination of the pop artist by would-be feminist visionary Valerie Solanas. Basquiat, coming soon, features David Bowie as the pale media manipulator of the mid-'70s. And currently at Valley Art Theatre is director Susanne Ofteringer's Nico-Icon, a lovingly made documentary about the onetime Factory regular and Velvet Underground chanteuse.

This beautifully lurid film takes an unblinking look at the life and various careers of Nico, nee Christa Paffgen, from her childhood in wartime Berlin to the late '80s, when she was a zombified junkie. Nico was a fascinating mirror of the world she inhabited. A striking beauty, she was a model for Paris Vogue and an actress in such films as La Dolce Vita, but is best remembered for her brief membership in Warhol's inner circle and her singing with the legendary Velvets.

Velvet Underground, which featured Lou Reed and John Cale, wrote and sang of the dark side of life at a time--the mid-'60s--when the public wanted good vibrations and hippie-utopian peace/love anthems. They were way ahead of their time--songs with titles like "Heroin" and "Black Angel's Death Song" weren't typical 1966 Top 40 fodder.

The Velvets became house band at the Factory and were promoted as part of a multimedia happening called "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable." At Warhol's suggestion, the Velvets used Nico as occasional vocalist and visual centerpiece. Her long blond hair and all-white pantsuits were a stunning counterpoint to the broodingly dark intensity of the rest of the band, and her monotonal, heavily accented vocals on such Reed-penned classics as "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" sounded like Marlene Dietrich on sedatives. With her mysteriously blank face and expressionless singing, she seemed to be from another world.

After one album, Nico became dissatisfied with her minimal role in the band and moved on. Her life from then on was a series of failures--her solo career ignored by the public, her romantic life one bad relationship after another.

Among the men in her life referenced in the film are Jim Morrison, a very young Jackson Browne, and Alain Delon, who fathered Ari, her only child. The French actor never acknowledged his son, and the boy was eventually raised by Delon's mother.

As the years progressed, Nico's self-destructiveness became almost perverse. The lovely young woman whose hands were described as looking like milk and glass gradually became an x-ray view of her previous self. The hair was dyed black, the clothes were soon all black, and her rotted teeth soon began to catch up--only her skin remained pasty. "Ugly" became her aesthetic. Heroin completed the transformation and sent her into the usual decline. Interviews in the film with those who knew her from this period paint a frighteningly vivid portrait of real-life decadence and lost potential.

Nico-Icon jumps between eras to great effect, marking the damage in its star's life. The most startling contrast comes early on, when Ofteringer cuts from a performance clip of the Velvet days to an '80s live show. The '60s shots show an eternal, mysterious beauty; those from the '80s show a strung-out woman with death in her eyes. It's like watching an impossibly perfect '90s supermodel decomposing before our eyes.

Nico-Icon:
Directed by Susanne Ofteringer; with Christa Paffgen, Tina Aumont, Jackson Browne, Viva, Paul Morrisey and James Young.

Unrated.

 
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