An androgynous, vaguely robotic alien character who can belt out an aria as easily as a Lou Christie number? Only in New York and only in the late '70s and early '80s. The Nomi Song documents both the character mentioned above Klaus Nomi and the provocative East Village art/music/performance scene he was part of. Though Nomi was, in the words of one of this film's interview subjects, "a freak among freaks," he epitomized the apocalyptic artistry that defined New York during the era. This film expertly captures the scenesters' singular, blinding devotion to art at all costs, as well as their playful and communal attitudes.
Like most of the East Village's art-damaged "celebrities," Klaus Nomi came to New York because he was a bit unusual. Born Klaus Sperber in Essen, Germany, he became obsessed at an early age with the great opera singers, so much so that he moved to Berlin to work as an usher at the opera house. But Klaus also liked rock & roll; an archival interview in the film finds him talking about a time when his mother angrily took away his copy of Elvis' King Creole and exchanged it for a Maria Callas recording. Wanting to affect people in the same way that opera affected him, Sperber adopted an outlandish stage act equal parts Bauhaus imagery, interpretive movement and '50s sci-fi kitsch to deliver his high-powered falsetto to audiences at places like Max's Kansas City. That "act" soon turned into a full-on persona, and the somewhat nebbishy opera nerd Klaus Sperber was quickly subsumed into the avant-garde, New Wave freakout Klaus Nomi. (Still, he never abandoned his provincial love for making desserts: He was perhaps the only New Wave pastry chef on the scene.)
Downtown audiences simply adored Nomi's performances, which came during the height of New Wave experimentation in New York City. It was one of the last explosively creative phases the city felt before the Giuliani era made it safe for and attractive to middle-class bankers. "New Wave" in the city was as much a post-punk musical experience as it was a continuing insistence that the bohemian community of musicians, artists, photographers, writers, fashion designers and other assorted freaks still made New York an attractive haven for outcasts from around the world.
Filmmaker Andrew Horn does an incredible job via loads of incredible archival footage and excellent interviews of capturing the era's artistic optimism, as well as the depicted community's inability to comprehend that it was completely out of touch with reality. After Nomi appeared as a backup singer for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live, everyone around him was convinced big things were on the horizon. A tour was booked that included an opening slot for Twisted Sister. At a mall. In New Jersey. It didn't go well, and Nomi beat a hasty retreat to the safe confines of the Village.
The Nomi Song is surprisingly honest for being so hagiographic; Horn doesn't shy away from the sheer silliness of the era, nor does he try to insist that Nomi was a Very Important Musician. (And he doesn't try to make Nomi's story an AIDS parable, though the artist was one of the first to die from the disease.) Where the film succeeds most clearly is in using Nomi as a prime example of just how far artists and musicians will push themselves in the name of creativity, and how important a sense of "community" was in allowing an aberration like Nomi to realize his ideas. It's very nostalgic as well, because Horn understands that, in this day and age even in New York it's highly unlikely that a scene this kooky and daring is currently incubating.