film review

The Nomi Song

By Elke de Wit

Andrew Horn has used footage from a 1950's sci fi movie for both the opening and closing scenes of his documentary. In the initial clip a smooching couple watches a spacecraft landing and in the final clip the spacecraft leaves, watched by a larger group of people. The implication is that Klaus Nomi – a singer who became a cult figure within the New Wave Underground scene of the 1980's - was so strange it was as if he had landed on earth after coming from another planet. He stayed on earth for a very short while, made lots of friends, had a good time and then left again. The Nomi Song shows a collection of people he met and events that he was a part of during his stay.

Horn has focused on interviewing people who were directly associated with Nomi. Anecdotes are told by band members, Ann Magnuson (a performance artist and director of the New Wave Vaudeville Show, who gave him his first engagement), Ira Siff (his singing tutor), relatives, a producer, friends, Gabriele La Fari (an actress and a fellow German in New York) and so on. Most of these people are complimentary. The interview with his dead aunt is recreated using a cardboard cut out - a quirky idea that caused a ripple of giggles in the audience. Gabriele, his German flat mate, talks about him as if he had only died yesterday and seems bitter about his death. She has never been able to listen to his music again and still feels that he threw his life away. The anger and resentment that she feels toward him are audible. She tried to warn Nomi to go easy on the cruising, but Nomi was convinced that everything could be cured through the use of anti-biotics. Another friend recounts how he went for a walk one evening and bumped into Nomi screwing someone in the open.

Nomi's uncontrolled sexual promiscuity is offset by his self-disciplined mission to be a singer. Ira Siff, his singing tutor, found it odd that he focused entirely on perfecting a counter tenor register. In the end it paid off, as he was able to create a completely distinctive sound. When he demonstrated what he had learned to a friend who booked the acts in a club, she immediately encouraged him to perform there.

It is the descriptions of Nomi as a performer or as the inventor of his alien-like alter-ego that are most fascinating. Apparently when he stepped out onto the stage for his first ever performance and started singing the audience sank into a stunned silence. Even after he had finished it took them a few seconds to recover enough to clap and cheer him.

The description of how he stood alone at a cocktail party in full make-up, wearing an outlandish red plastic costume, evokes how exotic he was. The only person who dared to talk to him was a little girl who asked whether he'd come from another planet, to which he replied 'yes'.

Intermittently there are clips of Nomi performing. Despite the bizarre outfits and make-up he often reminded me of Gustav Grüntgens, a German actor endorsed by Hitler and his cronies, who famously used the Third Reich to further his career. Nomi's make-up bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Grüntgens when he played the part of Mephisto. Is this mere coincidence? Horn does not throw any light on where Nomi's inspiration for his image came from.

This instance hints that there might be a darker side to the man. One of Nomi's musical collaborators reveals that Nomi refused to give him credits on either of the two albums that he wrote songs for and performed on. This is the only hint that Nomi may not have been liked by some.

A reliable source told me that the final cut of this doc is a sanitised version of its previous incarnation. A previous rough cut included much nastier revelations about Nomi's character and actions. The reasons behind the decision to show such an affable version of the Klaus Nomi story remain unclear, but the result is that The Nomi Song is a pleasant enough outing into Nomi's life, hopefully introducing a new generation to his whacky music – though a little dirt might have made for juicier screen entertainment.

The Nomi Song was the 2004 Teddy Award Winner (a prize awarded to films with a gay or lesbian theme) for the Best Documentary Film at the 2004 Berlinale.

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