About two-thirds of the way through The Nomi Song, one of the interviewees remarks that the life of Klaus Nomi closely resembles one of those “Behind The Music” specials, and he’s quite right. It has all of the trappings of your classic rock n’ roll story. A new artist arrives on the scene, bringing a fresh, original sound that gets everyone talking. Their star soon takes off, noone can seem to stop raving about them, and seemingly limitless opportunities are on the horizon.
Then begins the inevitable fall from grace; they become dissatisfied with their career and begin grasping for even more, distancing themselves from friends and loved ones in the process. Bad career decisions and record contracts follow, and then it ends, with the artist finally becoming consumed by the excesses of their lifestyle and passing on to some measure of legend.
However, this is not some ordinary bar band who suddenly struck it big. The Nomi Song follows a classically-trained opera singer from Berlin who came to New York at the height of the 1970s “New Wave” era. Klaus Nomi (born Klaus Sperber) quickly made a name for himself in the local vaudeville shows, performing classical arias in his haunting, otherworldly falsetto while dressed up like an alien, complete with white face paint and costumes that would make David Bowie green with envy.
Backed by his band and performance artists, Nomi quickly gained a cult-like following and even had his own little clique, the so-called “Nomis” (who worshipped at the altar of pop sci-fi, incorporating classic sci-fi’s apocalyptic ideas into their performances and lifestyles). Nomi’s avant-garde credibility did translate into some measure of mainstream success, culminating in a performance with David Bowie on “Saturday Night Live”. However, it was never enough, leading to the eventual backstabbings and bad record deals.
Of course, as befitting any good rock n’ roll story, a lonely, broken individual lies behind the limelight, and such was Nomi. He had built himself up so much as an inhuman figure that he essentially became trapped by his persona, and was left bereft of any real human relationships.
This isolation plays itself out most tragically as the documentary looks at Nomi’s final days, when he lay dying from AIDS as a result of his sexual activities. At the time, the disease was still relatively unknown. Nobody knew if it was contagious or not, and as a result, Nomi was left to die alone, having been shunned by frightened friends and acquaintances. Although there are no obvious tearjerker scenes in the film, those of his friends expressing regret, intercut with scenes of Nomi performing “The Cold Song” with a full orchestra, come pretty close.
Director Andrew Horn spent several years on this directory, conducting interviews and compiling concert footage (much of it from Nomi’s earliest days on the NY scene). The result is an often compelling film that becomes more so with repeated viewings (at least for me). Interestingly enough, the documentary becomes much more than just your standard music documentary. Because Nomi typified the artistic excesses of the “New Wave” era in many ways, the film also becomes something of a eulogy for that era. Time and again, the interviewees describe the late 70s/early 80s with great fondness, recounting the boundless creativity, energy, and sense of community that was so common back then.
Even though Nomi had left his bandmates in a lurch because of his pursuit for success, I was surprised at just how much affection they still expressed for the man. By how often they said that they had loved helping him and had been willing to support him and his endeavors in exchange for a few lime tarts (among other things, Nomi was apparently something of a pastry chef). Obviously, that sense of camaraderie now has a bittersweet edge to it, but it’s still quite striking.
The film isn’t perfect, however, and feels rather muddled at times. There’s very little sense of time and continuity throughout the film, making for one that’s a little confusing chronologically. We know that the events chronicled by the film take place between 1974 and 1983 (when Nomi died). However, a little more information as to when specific events occurred, such as Nomi’s performance with Bowie, would have been helpful in putting everything in context, I think.
Furthermore, Nomi performances are sprinkled throughout the film, but again, no sense of when these took place is given. For example, we’re shown footage of Nomi’s first vaudeville performance. That is, until later in the movie when we’re shown yet another “first performance” and we’re left wondering which one is the real one. More clarification as to matters of continuity like that would’ve been nice.
No such complaints about the DVD itself, which comes loaded with deleted scenes (including some very poignant scenes from the photographer who was one of the last people to see Nomi alive), a bunch of additional footage on Nomi’s life and the “New Wave” scene in general, several live performances including the full version of Nomi’s aforementioned performance of “The Cold Song”, and even a recipe for his lime tarts.
As with Palm’s release of Stoked, I have a feeling some might watch The Nomi Song as a curiosity piece, as a way to engage in some nostalgia for a bygone era, or simply because Nomi himself was such a bizarre figure. To do so, I think, would be to miss the point and rob the film of its true potential impact.
I did watch the film as a curiosity piece the first time, and thought it was alright. However, my second viewing proved to be much more affecting as the man’s isolation and loneliness became more prevalent. Although the documentary doesn’t answer all of the questions about Nomi’s life—the man still remains as enigmatic at the end of the film as he was at its beginning—at its best, it’s an absorbing and poignant look at a truly unique individual and a longlost era.