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.