Note- Nico Icon can be found here on YouTube. Please make sure you switch on the English subtitles before watching as some sequences are in French and German.
I first became aware of the singer Nico in 1988, ironically the year the singer passed away. I was becoming a huge fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees and a new book had been published about the band. The first few pages went through the early lives of the band members and the bands they were listening to as they were growing up. Of course one of them was The Velvet Underground and Nico. The picture published to illustrate this however wasn’t one of the iconic monochromatic shots of the band wearing shades, black clothing and looking absolutely cool with it. Instead, the image was of Nico but after see had dyed her hair and wasn’t the glacially beautiful blonde chanteuse anymore. The pic was from 1970 and she was dressed in a cape. ‘What Goth could have become if more people had taken Nico to their hearts’, I thought.
Shortly after this I started listening to and loving The Velvet Underground starting with their iconic first album. Nico’s voice was a revelation. Her teutonic vocals with her own sense of phrasing and meter were mindblowingly original. In fact, after hearing this album I bought The Marble Index and my love for Nico and her career was born.
On seeing the documentary Nico Icon on YouTube I decided to investigate further.
And I’m so glad I did. The film fully explores Nico’s legacy and metamorphosis brilliantly from her time as a model (a profession she hated as she saw herself as a blonde smiling object and nothing more), her introduction to movies with her turn in La Dolce Vita no less, her introduction to singing and then becoming a staple of Warhol’s Factory crowd (Andy famously described her singing style as like that of an IBM computer with a Greta Garbo accent) after being introduced to Warhol by Bob Dylan. Her stint as chanteuse on The Velvet Underground’s iconic first album (not to mention her relationship with The Velvet’s lead singer Lou Reed) followed shortly after this with her solo career as a result.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional pull that the documentary has. The scene in which Nico’s aunt is listening to I’ll Be Your Mirror and starts crying because of the beauty of the music and her late niece’s vocals is incredibly moving. The fact that Lou Reed’s lyrics are displayed on the screen via the film’s subtitles show just how gorgeous they are.
The melancholic and reflective aspect of Nico’s music is also explored with songs as achingly stirring as You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone acting as a reflection of Nico’s life. She was evidently her own mirror for the world to see.
The transformation of Nico from blonde bombshell to Angel of Death is also examined. With this metamorphosis people who said to her that the change was too drastic and made her look ugly were met with joyous proclamations from the woman herself. She loved the fact that she wasn’t a blonde object of beauty anymore for others to ogle, an object.
She seemed to hate life and to be looking forward to death. She infamously became a junkie with her addiction to heroine (what else for the guest singer with The Velvets) which meant she toured constantly to supplement her habit. James Young is on hand to tell tales of what it was like to be in her band during this period with one incident involving her deliberately handing him a tour’s worth of used needles for him to dispose of when they were approaching border control whilst in their tour bus. ‘She was the Queen of the Bad Girls’, Young states. She also loved the track marks, rotting teeth and bad skin that the drug had bestowed on her body. ‘That was her aesthetic’, Young opines.
Nico’s son Ari from her relationship with French actor Alain Delon (one of Nico’s other former lovers expresses that Delon was descended from sausage makers and even though he became a famous actor there was no getting away from his true family vocation in life) is also interviewed. We hear the shocking revelation that it was her who introduced him to heroine and that whilst he was once in a coma, she came to the hospital to record the noises his life support machine made to utilise on her next album.
But throughout the documentary one thing truly shines through and that is the music itself. There has never been any other artist like Nico in terms of music and image. She was a true individual with a back catalogue that is alarmingly and consistently brilliant. Whilst her first album Chelsea Girl was material written by others for her, her second album and every subsequent album after this starting with The Marble Index, showed that Nico wasn’t just an amazing singer and frontperson but also an astonishing writer. Her imagery and obsessions are just as idiosyncratic as her persona and are utterly intoxicating. Fortunately this is captured in the documentary with all phases of her music career being given an airing. And that’s one of the greatest aspects of the film- it encourages the viewer to investigate further and fall full-on into the disturbing, beautiful and esoteric rabbit-hole that is Nico’s oeuvre. And it’s an amazing place to vacate.
Her transition from the blonde Ice Queen to the Angel of Death is extraordinary enough and reminds me of the transition that Scott Walker made from pop star pin-up to serious artist who made the kind of music that music critics can’t salivate over more. Nico was even more exemplary as when she started writing her own material we were suddenly plunged headlong into her own world with it’s own meanings and rules. It was a sphere of frozen borderlines, friar hermits and janitors of lunacy. What does it all mean? Who knows. But it works beautifully. We were invited into the mindscape of an island, a question mark, a true maverick and, dare I say, a genius.
This documentary is so good that not even the very pretentious device of snippets of dialogue appearing on the screen as text just as a subject is saying them can even ruin or tarnish proceedings. Thankfully this isn’t employed too often but why it was used at all is beyond me.
Proceedings are rounded off with a rendition of Frozen Warnings from the album The Marble Index sung by John Cale at the piano. It’s an apt tribute to a singer who Cale saw as someone truly exceptional even if the world is still catching up on Nico’s genius. But with a new biography coming out soon it appears that the wheels are in motion regarding this. This documentary is a great starting point for the uninitiated and familiar alike.
Essential and one of the best documentaries about one of the best and beguiling subjects ever to grace the arts. Even Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs up. But don’t let that put you off.
5 stars out of 5