Klaus Nomi was an exemplary New Wave pop star, a bizarre creature of the New York underground who died (from AIDS) before his career really got going. Klaus isn't especially famous, which is a shame, for this excellent new documentary, The Nomi Song, shows us a most amazing performer who, in the grand show-business tradition, led a quasi-fictional life..
Originally from Germany (real name Klaus Sperber), Klaus moved to New York and fashioned a startling act inspired by science fiction ("Nomi" was an anagram of sci-fi mag "OMNI" and Klaus and his team spread the rumour that he was actually an alien from outer space) and opera, in which he was classically trained. His face ghostly white except for black Clara Bow lips and severe eyebrows, and his blue-black hair gelled into spikes, Klaus jerkily took center stage with robotic, alien movements before breaking into electro-pop songs delivered with a barking German accent. Stunned crowds watched as he shifted voices without any warning, singing choruses in a glass-shattering high counter tenor before exiting the stage by disappearing back into clouds of dry ice.
His eclectic/bizarre song list included covers of Chubby Checker's "The Twist", Donner Summer's "I Feel Love" and classic, hysterical pre-AIDS doomsday pop like "Total Eclipse" (sample lyric: Blow up, Everything's going to go up, Even if you don't show up, In your chemise Lacoste.) Off stage, he welcomed friends with self-cooked tarts and pies (apparently expertly made and delicious) and hung out with post-Warhol New York scene kings like Joey Arias.
Ambitious, talented and workaholic, Klaus performed with David Bowie on a 1980 episode of "Saturday Night Live," performed in the film Urgh! A Music War! and eventually won a recording contract which produced a couple of albums, the first of which went gold in France. In Europe he was a burgeoning pop star and toured successfully across the continent despite exhaustion and increasing illness. Quite the diva, Klaus dropped old friends as he climbed the ladder, and isolated old associates by not acknowledging their songwriting contributions on album sleeve credits. Catherine Deneuve was reportedly a fan.
He returned to New York in the early Eighties, appearing in a series of sellout performances in nightclubs, but dodged questions from friends about his obviously failing health. Apparently, when he died (in 1983) he did so alone in the hospital. Friends confess that they, and to their knowledge no one else, came to visit.
Andrew Horn's documentary keeps just the right chilled distance from its evanescent subject matter and pays due reverence to Klaus without falling into titillation or fandom. We get only the vaguest impression of Klaus from the recollections of his contemporaries, an eclectic bunch of wild-children of the Seventies New Wave, now in various forms of middle age, who shared Klaus' time and spaces, but who don't seem to be too sure of who or what they actually knew or did. They comment as much on their ever-evolving view of Klaus' art on Klaus himself, and when questions turn to Klaus' off-stage identity and the details of his death, the recollections become very sketchy indeed. What we gather is that Klaus' emotional life was generally depressive but always played very close to his chest. Klaus doesn't seem to have been much more promiscuous than most other gay men in New York at the time, but his subsequent death gives his apparently active anonymous sex life an air of tragedy.
We hear snippets about Klaus cruising the piers, but learn nothing of his romantic attachments, if he ever had any. It's a shame, but appropriate, that we never find out anything about this kabuki tin-man's heart.
Horn has secured what looks like as much footage of Klaus in performance as is possibly available, making the movie a semi-concert film. Nomi's act was a stunner, and his nerve was strong. When he sang with a full symphony orchestra on German TV, he dressed in a lilac leotard with a stiff Elizabethan collar, and seemed to win the volk over – they cheer enthusiastically as he stalks off stage.
Apart from the burning desire to rush out and buy Klaus' back catalogue, the film doesn't infuse us with anything more than a confusing mix of curiosity and jealousy, a simultaneous sense of repulsion and attraction that was key to Klaus' unique queer act, and this verisimility makes The Nomi Song a perfectly appropriate, brilliant documentary. Whether it will find an audience is another question. Klaus' angular originality and his relative unsexiness is sure to be a turn off for homogenised mainstream gay viewers.
Extensive information on Klaus' life and work can be found on this excellent website which also contains - mega Bonus! - audio of Klaus' staggeringly original music including his versions of "Ding! Dong! (The Witch Is Dead)", "The Cold Song", "You Don't Own Me" and many others, and the film's official website is also very informative.
The upcoming film Spider Man is an escapist story about a guy who can climb skyscraper walls, spin webs out of his fingertips, and handily morph into an office worker whose girlfriend doesn't suspect a thing. It's a major player in the 2002 summer escapist-blockbuster season, along with Episode Two of Star Wars, and the sequel to Men in Black.
Six years and one Sept. 11 after Independence Day blitzed the worldwide box office, on the strength of spectacular special effects that showed the White House and the Empire State Building being blown to pieces by hostile aliens, film companies are extremely cautious about showing the World Trade Centre in films that were completed before the towers' destruction.
The original marketing campaign for Spider Man featured the twin towers prominently. The trailer had escaping bank robbers becoming snared in a giant spider's web, with the camera zooming out to show that the web was suspended between the twin towers. Audiences who saw this trailer before Sept. 11 whooped and cheered.
Apparently, this was promo-material only, and the scene was never intended for the final cut. In any case, the trailer was pulled after Sept. 11. The original publicity poster for the film showed Spider Man wedged, larger-than-life, between the twin towers - the new poster has no towers, just Spider Man.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Hollywood showed its skill in keeping up with the times - which is, after all, one of the keys to winning good box office. But it also showed one of its weaknesses: its love of the simplest-and-lowest-common-denominator. It thought, understandably, that audiences might be thrown by the sight of the twin towers, now too infamous and tragic to be slotted into the background of a no-brainer popcorn flick.
So some films released late last year, like Zoolander, had glimpses of the towers digitally removed before their release. Films with close-to-the-bone subject matter were also affected. Arnold Schwarznegger's new film Collateral Damage - about a firefighter who goes into action after a terrorist attack - was postponed by several months.
Several upcoming films, including Men In Black 2 and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, are being re-edited or digitally modified to exclude visual references to the twin towers. The finale of MIB2 was to feature Will Smith battling a giant alien worm on the rooftop of one of the towers. What audiences will see, thanks to computer effects, is the same battle, fought on the rooftop of a different building. What about the second chapter of The Lord Of The Rings, which is called The Two Towers - will it be retitled?
Similar things happened in September 1997, after the death of Princess Diana. The Australian film Diana and Me featured Toni Collette as an Australian girl called Diana Spencer who travels all the way to London to meet her namesake, and ends up getting involved with a photographer in a dogged pursuit of the princess. The film was due to be released in late summer 1997, but after Diana's death, two new scenes were quickly shot and the film was re-edited to comment anew on the role of the paparazzi.
What does this avoidance of jarring current affairs events say about our relationship to film? We line up in droves to watch films where people die, leaving behind their devastated loved ones (Terms Of Endearment, Titanic), or films that explore serious issues (The Insider or American Beauty). And movies featuring violence, death and destruction have been box office gold for decades.
So why do we, or the film companies that entertain us, feel the need to be shielded from recent shocks? It's as if Hollywood cares for us like a nanny, tucking us up at night and assuring us there are no real monsters out there .
We are still unsure about how to react to Sept. 11. Creative artists, screenwriters and filmmakers will need time to figure it out too. At a recent Hollywood forum, writer-director Peter Hyams said, 'If I had a film that was a comedy and there's a scene of two people walking up the street and in the background is the World Trade Centre, I'd want that out of my film, because that would certainly make people like me start to cry'.
On the one hand, I understand what he means. Recently I was watching an episode of Sex And The City, when the towers briefly appeared. Suddenly, lost in thought, I missed the next few minutes of dialogue and lost the thread of the whole episode.
But on the other hand, I can't help thinking of the lame early 1990s gay/AIDS film, Longtime Companion, which explored a friendship group of gay men, many of whom die of AIDS during the film. At the end, all of the dead characters magically reappear in a saccharine dream sequence on a beach, running through the sand in slow motion and hugging their friends with full corporeality. The anguish of the subject matter, in this case AIDS, is avoided - just cancelled out.
The filmmakers were betraying the fact that they had an uncertain reaction to the subject matter of the film. So much for one of the few 'serious' films 'about' AIDS. Likewise, the makers of Diana and Me virtually remade their film, updating its point of view to suit contemporary events (in vain, as it turns out - the film flopped). The same process is happening today, as filmmakers scramble to make their fictional films reality-savvy. And for now, reality is Ground Zero, not the standing twin towers.
It is understandable from a marketing point of view, but a bit dubious from a rational point of view. The twin towers were destroyed, and it was truly horrible. But what is achieved by pretending they were never there in the first place?
Mark Adnum is a Sydney-based writer.