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The Nomi Song
reviewed by Ian Dawe

September 19, 2005 | For the past two weeks, The Nomi Song has been haunting me. It's not just the figure of Klaus Nomi, the doomed singer whose story this documentary tells that's been the cause of the haunting. It's something more basic than that. It's a great story, well told. Cinema shouldn't be (and isn't) completely and exclusively about great stories told well, but there is room in the medium for it, and it certainly shouldn't matter if that story is told through a conventional dramatic narrative or a documentary.

The Nomi Song is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. That isn't an insult, nor is it a minimization of the film's narrative accomplishments. It's a beautiful, compelling examination of a character that floats through his story in the way all great characters do. It's filled with compelling and original music, real emotion, ups and downs, triumphs and challenges, original, creative storytelling and visual stylization - everything we go to the movies to see. So, when I say that it's a great documentary, what I really mean is that it's a great film.

The Nomi Song tells the story of singer and performer Klaus Nomi. It's not his life story, nor is it the story of his untimely death in 1983 of AIDS. Instead, it's an examination of what effect and impact his artistic life had on the fertile, wonderful post-punk new wave music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fueled by Warhol and punk, a new generation of artists arrived in New York City in the late 70s determined to claim their "superstardom", as Warhol had promised. They were children of popular culture and popular music - a culture that had made self-examination into and end in and of itself. (One of the film's many concert clips, for example, features a new wave band doing a campy cover of "Anarchy in the UK", then barely three years old.)

Into this scene walked Klaus Nomi, a singer who styled himself as being from literally another planet. His appearance was something right out of the collective cultural subconscious of the time, combining elements of 1950s science fiction with Weimar decadence. His angular features, painted face and spiked hair perfectly complemented his robotic, balletic movements, but what really made him important was his wonderful voice. In an early clip in the film, we see him move a roomful of self-confessed rock and roll kids to silence with a brilliant tenor soprano aria, incongruous but somehow wonderfully right for his time and place.

Of course, Klaus was not from another planet, but, as the documentary tells us, simply from Germany. As Klaus Sperber, he was a classically-trained tenor who came to New York in the early 1970s seeking fame and fortune as an opera singer. After years of washing dishes and baking pastries (a passion he never abandoned), new wave finally gave him his chance for glory, and he took it. Over the next five years, from 1978 to his death in 1983, as Klaus "Nomi" (a pseudonym that, among other things, summed up his struggle for a sense of personal identity) made a name for himself in the rock and classical worlds on both sides of the Atlantic. His personal loneliness led him into a promiscuous lifestyle that, to be fair, many of his generation shared. When the spectre of AIDS reared its head in the early 1980s, the young Klaus was one of its first victims. "What should have been a great beginning," the former head of his fan club states in the film "was really an ending."

Instead of telling Klaus' story in a conventional way, director Andrew Horn chooses to buy into the Nomi mythos on some level, and present his subject as his friends and colleagues saw him - a being from another world. The tagline, "He came from outer space to save the human race," becomes the unsettling pulse of the film. Of course, there is plenty of great music, mostly from Klaus, but some from his contemporaries, including David Bowie in full-on late-70s expressionist mode.

We hear from members of his band, his songwriter, his manager, photographers and artists who knew him in New York, and journalists who tried (in vain) to get a hold on his persona during his short time in the spotlight. "Deep down he was very superficial," says writer Alan Platt, but also points out, as does just about everyone else, how sweet and lovely Klaus was. His only real flaw, it appears, seems to have been his career-decisions, which left some of his bandmates fuming and led him into poor business situations.

Though the film ultimately ends on a bittersweet note, Horn does not shy away from the harsh and cruel bucket of cold water that AIDS threw on the new wave. Nomi's illness resulted in him dying alone and disfigured, his closest friends afraid to even give him a hug for fear of contracting the disease. "It was about survival," noted artist Kenny Scharf says glumly, his betraying a guilt that is shared by all of those who were close to Klaus Nomi. One of the most intriguing statements comes from his old roommate Gabriele Lafari, a fellow German who repeatedly warned him against his sexual proclivities. "He didn't leave a pretty corpse," she says, tersely, still angry at his lack of concern for his health. "I still can't listen to his music."

Still, Nomi's final performance, presented here for the first time since he gave it, leaves us with a lingering sense that with him died the promise and energy of a whole generation. The Nomi Song is finally a fascinating exploration of a short-lived period in modern American culture that allowed, and even encouraged, originality and artistic courage. How far we've fallen.

The DVD, available from Palm Pictures, is a wonderful package, with a crystal-clear 16:9 widescreen anamorphic picture a slew of extras, including an informative commentary with Andrew Horn, many deleted scenes, full performances from Nomi, new re-mixes of his music and, in what ultimately is a touching and poignant gesture, Klaus' own recipe for lime tart. Gorgeous.

A freelance writer and longtime film enthusiast, Ian Dawe is now completing a Master's Degree in Film History. He currently teaches at Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia.

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