How do you knock out a crowd of rock n roll pissers? Is it possible to stun the terminally unfazed? German-born singer Klaus Nomi did just that at a new wave vaudeville show in the late 70s: He sang a tender Samson and Delilah aria in perfect falsetto soprano, wearing a catsuit inside of a clear plastic bubble. Amid the antics from fuck-ups flailing foam guitars like flaccid penises, it took Nomi mere seconds to prove there were still boundaries to push, even in the underground.
The Nomi Song, written and directed by Andrew Horn, is a documentary featuring home video footage, interview clips with Nomi and the requisite talking heads band mates, journalists, friends, fans and fellow artists who jumped onto Nomis back as soon as they saw his incredible act. But Horn cleverly makes a concerted effort to break up the monotony by making his interviewees re-enact Nomis performances with paper dolls. He also incorporates clips from 50s sci-fi thrillers and even shoe-box dioramas to visually convey Nomis inspirations and add texture to the film.
But for all Horns attempts to engage us with his inventive artistic perspective, the most exquisite moments in The Nomi Song are when it functions as a straightforward music film. Horn compiled lots of incredible archival footage of Nomis shows from his first club gig at Maxs Kansas City to his Saturday Night Live performance backing up David Bowie (a turning point in Nomis career) to the time he took center stage at an orchestra hall and sang for an audience of classical music lovers. With his extreme artifice, Nomi could turn any show into a piece of performance art.
Born in Essen, Germany as Klaus Sperber, he came to New York City at the right time, in the early 70s when the underground was comprised of misfits. With a love for Maria Callas and Elvis, he found a supportive community of outcasts who were also searching for stardom on their own terms. Throughout his career, Nomi alternated between putting up with the dive bar shows his band mates booked and flipping out because he hadnt made it bigger yet. Led by his manager Ron Johnsen, he signed on to RCA and, of course, signed away too much. He became a huge icon and his look became even more outlandish (as if a Weimar tuxedo and an inverted V-shaped hairdo could be more absurd). But the music lost its edge and, as a result, some of the friends who first fell for this soft-spoken androgynous elf of a man fell out of touch with him.
As Nomis music reached the progressive mainstream in the mid-80s and he toured the United States, Europe and Asia, he fell ill with AIDS. The film captures the despair Nomi felt near the premature end of his life, as one choked-up friend after another admits on camera that they were too freaked out by the medias portrayal of the mysterious gay cancer to sit at his bedside. It may seem inappropriate to characterize it this way, but Nomis isolation resonates as a perfect example of life imitating art. As one such friend says, his tragic death was like a perfect coda to the end of a lavish opera.
Showing at Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 31.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected].