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Kendall Theater's Nico-Icon looks back at the 60s


Kendall Square Theater, One Kendall Square, Cambridge.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

Sometimes I wonder how anyone from my generation has managed to survive. I came of age in the late 1960s, a time when we had a whole world to change - with no blueprint, we had to experiment a lot. There were, and are, lots of casualties from our experiments. Music was one of the many things we permanently changed, and one of the great changers was a New York band called the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets sang about what was going on in our world. Songs like "I'm Waitin' For My Man" and "Heroin" recorded the allure and despair of the drugs in our culture. They had two distinctive voices: Lou Reed, one of the guitarists and writers, and Nico, a model from Germany who couldn't really sing, but nevertheless delivered some unforgettable performances. She is currently the subject of a documentary, Nico/Icon, which opens today at the Kendall Square Theatre.

Nico (who died in a bicycle accident in 1988) was an incredibly beautiful woman who recognized and resented that her beauty made people want to possess her. Born Christa Pffgen in 1939 in Cologne, she lived her first six years surrounded by war and falling bombs, and her father died mysteriously in the army when she was three years old. After the insecurity of the war years, she could not accept the stifling conformity of the 1950s and sought out stardom of any sort as a way to escape from Germany.

Her path led her to Paris (where she adopted her professional name), London, and eventually New York, where she fell in with the circus surrounding Andy Warhol, and was made lead singer of his house band, the Velvet Underground, much to the band's dismay. After just two years together, the group disbanded, and Nico pursued a solo career, writing her songs and occasionally acting. But heroin became the main force in her life.

Many people have seen her in many different ways, and Susanne Ofteringer, the filmmaker who gives us Nico/Icon, is no exception. Simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the excesses of her subject's addiction, she reveals details like the introduction of Nico's son to heroin by his mother, but does not report that Nico was on methadone when she died. Nevertheless, with the many interviews of fellow travellers like Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, John Cale, Paul Morrissey, and Viva, and the sometimes rare footage of Nico's pre-and post-Velvet Underground existence, Ofteringer creates a tantalizing collage of an intriguing woman and her captivating times.

There's something sneaky about Bottle Rocket, which opened at the Kendall last Friday. For a movie with such a silly story and stupid protagonists, it is much more charming than it has any right to be. This is one of those independent little films shot on a shoestring that gets noticed by distributors and out of nowhere win major awards at places like Sundance. Bottle Rocket tells the tale of three 20-something adolescents in Nowhere, Texas who try to dream themselves out of their mundane lives by becoming small-time crooks.

Actually, only Dignan (played by Owen G. Wilson, also one of the writers) does the dreaming. The other two, Anthony and Joe, just follow along, because they care about him and they can't think of anything better to do. Wilson's brother Luke plays Anthony, and also shares a screenwriting credit. A few guns get fired and a little blood gets spilled (mostly from noses), but the prevailing tone goes back and forth from comic to poignant.

The Wilson brothers bring out a surprising number of fresh nuances from their stale plot, and had the good sense to talk Lumi Cavasos (Like Water For Chocolate) and James Caan into taking small parts in their story. Both serve more as icons than as actors here, but in these limited roles they serve well. Wes Anderson directs, and keeps it interesting as he keeps it moving along. Bottle Rocket is a pleasant diversion, and a promise of better work to come.

Also opening at Kendall today, but not previewed, is a new work of Japanese animation called The Ghost in the Shell. Read about it here next week. Still playing: Angels and Insects, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Leaving Las Vegas, Georgia, Antonia's Line, Richard III, and Midwinter's Tale.