The Nomi Song

The Nomi SongSynopsis: He came from outer space to save the human race.

Looks like an alien, sings like a diva – Klaus Nomi was one of 1980’s most profoundly bizarre appearances. He was a cult figure in the New Wave Underground scene who sang pop music like opera and brought opera to club audiences. He was a performer with a “look” so strong that his first audiences went wild before he even opened hi mouth. On the verge of international fame as a singer, he instead became one of the first prominent artists to die of AIDS. The reaction Klaus Nomi provoked was so strong, that he is still unforgettable, even 20 years after his death. Part documentary, part music film, part sci-fi, The Nomi Song is a fascinating and incredibly visual “non-fiction film” and audio history.


The Nomi Song 7.75

eyelights: Klaus Nomi. the style of the film. the wealth of archival material. the variety of interview subjects.
eyesores: the limited scope of the biographical material.

“And there I was, caught between two extremes.” – Klaus Nomi

‘The Nomi Song’ is a 2004 feature-length documentary on cult icon Klaus Nomi. Né Klaus Sperber, the German countertenor found his way to the New York City art scene in the ’70s and became a sensation for both his vocal range and unusual stage presence.

The film, whose title is taken from a song on his 1981 debut album, focuses mostly on his career as Klaus Nomi, from his stunning live performance at the 1978 New Wave Vaudeville in New York to his untimely death in 1983 from AIDS-related illnesses.

Backed by fresh interviews with friends, collaborators and other people who knew the enigmatic Nomi, as well as various archival material and concert footage, ‘The Nomi Song’ paints a portrait of his meteoric rise from the NY underground to the European charts.

I was amazed to hear that Klaus’ first live performance in his Nomi persona was so powerful that people thought he was lip-synching; they just couldn’t believe their ears. To think that his vocal coach felt that practicing his falsetto was a total waste of time…

In North America, people mostly remember him as David Bowie’s peculiar back-up singer for the rock legend’s December 15, 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Nomi and his friend had caught Bowie’s attention at the Mudd Club and were invited to participate.

It would be a career-defining moment.

Already alien-looking, with his stylized high forehead, B-movie-influenced costumes and otherworldly performances, he cemented his iconic look by drawing inspiration from the plastic costume Bowie wore at the SNL show – which he had adapted into a tux.

Soon thereafter he was in greater demand, finding himself in print everywhere and landing a record deal with RCA France. In a short amount of time, he released two albums, a number of singles and music videos and even landed a role in an underground film.

And then it all came crashing down.

‘The Nomi Song’ portrays Klaus as ambitious but very lonely. Already considered a space oddity in his inner circle, he couldn’t connect with the outside world – a function of his own personality and his public persona, which had been designed to be unapproachable.

A “freak among freaks”, he was unable to find a boyfriend. Lonely, fragile, he slept around, unprotected, becoming one of the first AIDS victims. It’s a sad end: as was typical then, he was deserted, left alone to die – for which there’s lots of regret from the participants.

I very much like this documentary. Although it doesn’t delve into Nomi’s personal life, it touches on it just enough to bring forth his humanity; we can’t help but sympathize with this lonely alien and feel sorrow when we see him in his frail final moments.

Stylistically, the film is perfectly suited to its subject, adding kitsch by incorporating black and white b-movie footage and grainy old performance material. And structurally, I love that it focuses on five specific years instead of spreading itself too thin.

Like its subject, it’s incredibly potent.

For novices, ‘The Nomi Song’ is the perfect primer on Klaus Nomi; it provides a superb overview of this one-of-a-kind artist. Long-time fans will find in it a terrific tribute to their idol, but may wish that his life and career were explored more in-depth than it has been here.

Thankfully, the DVD is spruced up by a number of excellent Special Features:

For starters is an audio commentary with director Andrew Horn. It’s an energetic and informative track that perfectly complements the film itself. In it, he comments not on the footage itself but on the history behind some of what is seen. It’s a must-hear track, one of the better ones I’ve heard.

There’s footage from ‘The Nomi Song’s Feb 1, 2005, release party in New York, three days before its official release. There’s a pre-screening intro by a guy from Palm Pictures and Horn followed by interviews with various NY celebrities, friends, collaborators, …etc., at the after-movie party.

The disc includes a couple of deleted scenes in which Michael Halsband talks about the last photoshoot he did of Klaus at the hospital he was in and the paranoia around AIDS then. There’s also a slide show of pictures of Klaus in his younger days with his Aunt’s commentary over them.

In the extras section, Andy Schwartz (of NY Rocker) talks about the new Wave and its role at the time, Klaus’ impact and style (the “shock of the new” as he called it) and Kristian Hoffman discusses the messages of the songs he wrote for Klaus and the mythos he tried to create.

Then singer Lou Christie marvels at the stunning cover that Klaus did of his “Lightning Strikes” and talks about his own career, touching fan club letters are read, the Klaus Nomi sculpture is displayed by Pat Keck and the culture in the East Village and its influence on Klaus is explored.

There are also a few performances featuring Klaus Nomi:

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Adrian and the Mutant Dance: Amidst flashing lights and spacey ’50s music, a lean white guy (presumably the titular Adrian) comes out from behind sliding panels with two “guards” in sci-fi clothing on either side of opening. Virtually naked, the spikey blonde haired man with  fur on his shoulders did a strange, stilted dance to some light guitar, drums and Klaus’ vocals. The whole scene is rather atmospheric and immersed in smoke. The dance seemed discrepant to me, but it’s interesting to see. In the end, the dancer disappeared between the panels which close to wild cheers from the audience. 7.5/7.0

2. The Cold Song: This is an unedited version of the last performance seen in ‘The Nomi Song’, featuring Klaus with a full orchestra. I’m not 100% sure what the occasion was or the setting (one online source says it’s Eberhard Schoener’s Classic Rock Night in Munich, Germany, in 1982), even, but it looks like a TV broadcast of some sort. It begins with Klaus walking out, all stiff, wearing Elizabethan garb. He then climbs the stairs to join the orchestra. He sings, immobile except for his wobbly arms. He seems very tentative going up and down the steps, but I’m not sure if it’s his stage persona or the illness that gave him that allure. For a full analysis of this performance, please read 7.0/5.0

3. After the Fall: In another undated and uncontextualized performance, Klaus sings in Elizabethan garb again, this time on stage with a simple sheet as background and two men in robes clapping and doing a slow choreography with their arms behind him. They are later joined by two other dancers with their backs turned to the audience and masks on the back of their heads. Klaus’ stage presence is stiff, wide-eyed, appearing much like Edward Scissorhands. The clip has weird ’80s effects thrown in, which seems appropriate. It’s a simple pop-rock song only made unusual by Klaus’ vocals. 7.25/4.75

There are also remixes of a couple of Klaus’ songs, as produced by Richard Barone: Total Eclipe (The Atomic Party mix), Mon coeur (L.H.O.O.Q. mix), Total Eclipse (The Man Parrish mix), and Mon coeur (Moog Cookbook mix). They were also released on a promotional EP in 2005.

Finally, there’s the trailer for ‘The Nomi Song’, which includes a bunch of footage that is not in the final film. It’s a brilliant, exciting trailer that really makes you want to see the movie. So much so, in fact, that it almost made me want to watch it again right after. It’s terrific.

All in all, it’s a wealth of material for fans and the curious to wade through, and although it doesn’t paint a complete picture of Nomi, it certainly informs one’s impression of him. And there are hidden gems too: look out for Klaus’ lime tart recipe, which is buried in the Extras menu!

I honestly don’t remember exactly how I heard about Klaus Nomi for the first time, but I know that it was approximately 6-7 years ago and that one of my friends was involved in my getting to know him. Whether she should get credit for it or not, I’m terribly glad to have discovered him.

I may not like all that Nomi did in his tragically brief career, but he was a fascinating character nonetheless; I like artists who create works that are completely unconventional and stand by them, who make them part and parcel of their personality. Nomi was one of them.

It’s a damned shame that his song was cut short.

Date of viewing: March 29, 2015

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