While he may appear to be a minor footnote in the history of early '80s New Wave, Judge Bill Gibron thinks Klaus Nomi deserves greater recognition. Thankfully, this fine documentary does his unusual legacy proud.
He came from outer space to save the human race.
The world only knew one Klaus Nomi, though two actually existed. On the one hand, there was the genre- and gender-defying diva, a combination of cartoon, cubism, and couture that filtered Fritz Lang into fetishism to produce something both artistic and alien. The other was a mild mannered, though stylistically flamboyant German émigré with a penchant for preparing pastry; a slight, lithe form; and a real life last name of Sperber.
How both elements could exist within the same persona was part of Nomi's mystery. He would more or less single-handedly usher in the performance art phase of late 1970s/early '80s New York counterculture. But in a pop tradition where New Wave was making all manner of misfits with differing dimensions of oddness quasi-household names, Nomi couldn't crack the mainstream. It may have been that the populace just wasn't ready for an opera singing spaceman who resembled an art deco demon. Or it could be that Nomi pushed the envelope of acceptability in an era where it often appeared that there were no limits.
Whatever the case may be, Nomi will always be an icon to a certain time in the temperament of music, a moment when experimentation could equal and embrace entertainment to create novelty out of the most bizarre and outrageous circumstances. And it's a testament to his striking visual appeal that, more than two decades since his death, he remains a symbol of style and subversion. The new documentary film The Nomi Song by Andrew Horn does as brilliant job of deconstructing the Nomi mythos, exposing and explaining both the magic and the manipulation that went into making Klaus an East Village (and eventual European) star.
The film accomplishes its difficult task of capturing Nomi within his element by mixing incredible archival footage, talking head anecdotes from individuals who knew and worked with him, as well as exceedingly fond memories from family and friends who describe an individual very different than the punked-out Pagliacci we see up on the screen. Nomi's act was not really innovative. He didn't break new ground or redefine a specific genre. Instead, his shtick was to create concrete expectations, only to void them instantaneously with his voice. Nomi's look suggested dangerous androgyny, a sexless scariness that drew directly from both glitzy drag and gloomy Gothic ideals. He crafted a visage so devoid of recognizable humanness that he technically ceased being a member of the planet's race.
But once he opened his mouth, a sound so pure and potent poured forth that audiences literally lost their breath. As higher and higher notes emanated and wafted from his perfectly outlined lips, technology clashed with humanity to throw the entire experience into the realm of the unreal. The Nomi Song gives us several glorious examples of how this worked. It also illustrates that when the artist threw aside the ruse of resplendency to tackle more electro-pop oriented material, the spell he could cast was suddenly broken. In its place was just another weirdo using synthesizers and fancy future shock to sell some singles.
For those familiar with his work, and the scene that grew up around it, you can see a lot of Nomi in legendary party boy Leigh Bowery, as well as Steve Strange and the entire Blitz/New Romantic movement. Nomi was one of the first self-made celebrities, building his overall image out of his own fevered imagination. His impact was so immediate, his visual representation so vanguard that he stood for the cutting edge of something that wasn't even defined yet. One of the highlights of the film is the David Bowie appearance on Saturday Night Live. After seeing what Nomi had to offer, the Thin White Duke tapped the elegant Astroman to act as back-up singer during his 1979 performance. What we witness is the startling performance in all its still-shocking glory.
Surprisingly, there is another SNL connection that The Nomi Song doesn't make. As part of former writer Michael O'Donoghue's legendary special, Mr. Mike's Mondo Video, Nomi made a special guest appearance doing his falsetto version of an aria from Saint-Saens' "Samson et Delilah." Juxtaposed with another seminal sequence—Sid Vicious performing "My Way"—O'Donoghue became a kind of accidental oracle, exemplifying the two most important culture trends for the coming decade.
People close to Klaus thought the Bowie appearance would certify his stardom. But all it did was begin the building of a riff that would see the artist sign with a shady record company, split from his original band, and escape to Europe for some long-time-in-coming recognition. Indeed, just like there were two distinct aspects to Klaus Sperber's personality, there are two concise facets to his career, something The Nomi Song illustrates brilliantly. When Klaus is a local NYC club favorite, the talk of the Eastern Village, local television, and most of Manhattan, he seems to consolidate everyone in the art community. As they supported his struggle for recognition, he opened up the pathways of acceptance for their evolving experimentation.
But when stardom stopped short of "super" status, Nomi turns tentative and terse, requiring more and more advanced admiration to feed his need for fame. When he takes the tainted record deal that ends his localized legend, Nomi is viewed as a traitor, a man misconstruing his own potential mainstream appeal. Though The Nomi Song shows us how popular the alien persona was during a spectacular tour of the Midwest, we never really learn how such a specialized act intended to play to the rest of the neo-conservative nation. Nomi's theatrics were built within a standard gay sensibility of irony and kitsch, but how that would play to people outside of the "too cool for school" college crowd is never revealed.
Indeed, a lot of what was going on in the entertainer's head is dissected from hearsay and inference. Nomi was notoriously coy with the press, making very few appearances that didn't play directly into his interplanetary persona, so as a result, we don't get to hear him speak for himself. The Nomi Song has only a couple of clear Q&As. What we get instead are several somber soundbites, moments that provide just the barest of insights into the man and his motivation. This is a minor misstep in what is otherwise a genuinely moving and mesmerizing film. Director Horn makes the life and untimely death (Nomi was one of the first famous victim of AIDS) of this perplexing pioneer a melodramatic memento, a sentimental souvenir to a place and a person long lost in time. It's impossible not to look at the archival footage of NYC in the late '70s/early '80s and not feel a sense of reflective melancholy for a sensationally soiled city then untouched by 9/11, Giuliani, Disney, and the gentrification of its cultural importance.
Nomi and his pals (some of which, like Anne Magnuson, are here to speak for themselves) destroyed the barrier between performance and persona, making everything and anything a conceivable part of the act. Elements as diverse as kabuki, cabaret, and the countertenor could be combined and melded with fashion and freshness into something that could revolutionize the staid art of stagecraft. Nomi's sudden sickness didn't derail the movement so much as rob it of its instrumental icon. Amazingly, it's an image that outlasted almost every other facet from that weird, wonderful time. It's what makes Klaus such an amazing subject, and The Nomi Song such an amazing documentary.
As they did with their releases of The Legend of Leigh Bowery and DiG!, Palm Pictures does another brilliant job of providing a technically solid presentation for The Nomi Song. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen is flawless with even the older archival material looking quite good. The Dolby Digital Stereo is equally sensational, making even the mono elements from the past sound perfectly fine.
Palm Pictures is also to be praised for the fine way they flesh out their DVD releases. The Nomi Song contains all manner of multimedia content, from remix versions of Nomi classics to full live performances of "The Cold Song" and "After the Fall." There is an amazing photo gallery by Village photographer David Godlis, a featurette on the New York premiere, and a collection of trailers. But the best bonus features are the lengthy section of deleted scenes and the commentary track by director Horn. The filmmaker was an acquaintance of Nomi's during his rise and reign in the New York club scene, and his added insights from that time make the movie that much more compelling. He discusses some of the sequences that had to be cut, as well as how he arrived at some of the amazing footage he found for the film. The result is a real complement to the narrative, as it gives us the reasons why this film came together and why it was so important to Horn.
Even better are the deleted scenes, extended interviews, and additional Q&As edited out of the final film. Combined, they create a sequel of sorts, providing ancillary facets of Nomi's importance as well as allowing us to hear from many of the individuals mentioned, but not seen, in the film proper. One in particular is singer/songwriter Lou Christie. Having composed the tune "Lightning Strikes" in the late '60s, Christie was so taken by Nomi's sci-fi cover that he wanted to write a futuristic musical for the singer. Sadly, Klaus got sick before they could start. Other segments, like a discussion of the new wave movement, the last photos taken of the singer while on his deathbed, and Nomi's valiant vocal training, complete the portrait of the man, his myth, and the overall era with exceptional detail.
Don't let the specialized subject matter scare you away from this intelligent and inventive movie. Klaus Nomi may have been a difficult to obtain taste, but his essence was the spice that made the early '80s musical movements in New York and Europe so incredibly revolutionary and unique. Dueling eccentricities aside, Nomi's legacy lives in the spirit that demanded convention to be challenged. It begged for conformity to be confronted. While he was never a Top 40 hitmaker, Klaus Nomi was an important artist in the East Village movement, and The Nomi Song is a cinematic anthem to his unorthodox individuality.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Commentary by the Director
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