Our week of documentaries concludes with a film I’ve been meaning to watch for ages now, and one which neatly ties up some of the themes and people and places we’ve encountered already. We’re looking at Andrew Horn’s The Nomi Song (2004), which profiles the extra-terrestrial aura, unearthly talent, profound surface and superficial depths of singer Klaus Nomi.
Born Klaus Sperber in 1944, Nomi worked as an usher in Berlin‘s Deutsche Oper before moving to New York in the early 1970s. It took some time until his unclassifiable act found a space to unfold. As with Leigh Bowery later, he offered a sort of performance art which sprang from underground clubs, visually informed by Bowie’s alien panto schtick which had also inspired Jobriath.
From the beginning, Nomi focussed obsessively on the look of his stage show, even in the tiniest venues, working in the same field of stylised, androgynous disaffection which inspired the 1982 movie Liquid Sky. He exemplified the anomie, alienation and detachment of New Wave, its angular aesthetic as well as its heavy-handed irony (looking utterly bizarre while singing about being “a simple man”, for instance). On the other hand Nomi was, as one interviewee notes, “a freak among the freaks”. What he offered was not spiky, spirited and amateurish but controlled, thought-out and rehearsed.
And then he opened his mouth.
Not only was there almost no precedent in pop music for Nomi’s brand of falsetto voice, it was also dormant in the classical environment which first inspired it, this being some years before the phenomenal gifts of countertenor Andreas Scholl, among others, repopularised Baroque castrati roles. The film vividly recreates the shock of Nomi’s celestial otherness and sheer talent penetrating the affectless cynicism of his peers.
But while Nomi’s accomplishments were undeniable, his career was haphazard, and each triumph was rapidly pursued by a setback. Singing with David Bowie on Saturday Night Live and then opening for Twisted Sister; carefully refining a kind of synthetic operatic sound only to be paired with unsympathetic studio musicians; breaking through in Europe while his record company failed to build on his high profile elsewhere.
And then just as it looked like Nomi’s astral arias might find their place in the world, he came down with what was then still being referred to ominously as “the gay plague”. Klaus Nomi died of AIDS-related illness in 1983, just three days after Jobriath met the same fate.