3 stars (out of 4)
There are times when popular music seems to matter more, in ways that go beyond personal history. It's more vital, fresher and more dangerous. The New Wave of the 1980sthe time just before MTVwas one of those eras. Bands including the Talking Heads and then Devo were filled with art-school grads who connected a look to the music, thinking visually like David Bowie before them.
Those were the famous names. I was living in Akron, where Devo had formed and just left, and there was a real connection between the scene there and what was happening in New York. The frequently visiting New York rock press often wrote about Akron bands such as Tin Huey, the Waitresses, Chi Pig and the Rubber City Rebels.
So when Klaus Nomi was booked at Akron's New Wave center, a tiny place called the Bank, it quickly sold out. We'd had a taste a few months earlier with his "Saturday Night Live" appearance singing backup for Bowie. But still, the hot, sweaty crowd was not ready for the man (to quote more than one article) who looked like an alien and sang like an angel.
I stood there, mouth gaping open in awe at his tragic falsetto, his sharp Dadaist costumes and black and white makeup, from lipstick to hair. A quarter of a century later, the memory's still vivid. And "The Nomi Song," the excellent 2004 documentary by Andrew Horn that opens Friday at the Music Box Theater and will be released on DVD June 14, captures the German-born Nomi: his time, his art, his ambitions, his all-too-typical music story of bad contracts, advice and ambition, and his untimely death in 1983 as one of the earliest artists known to die after contracting the AIDS virus.
Framed as an oral history full of interviews with those who knew and worked with him, "The Nomi Song" also serves as a history of the post-punk music era in New York City, when New Wave was just beginning. "We were misfits, and the only place misfits could go was New York City," says Ann Magnuson, the TV/movie actress who was a performance artist at the time. "I remember crying," she would later say of his performances, "it was such a great moment of theater."
One of Nomi's signature songs was Lou Christie's "Lightnin' Strikes," where he'd sing the first verse in his natural tenor, then launch into his falsetto at the chorus. But that was only part of the show.
"He was a freak among the freaks," says artist Kenny Scharf of Nomi (born Klaus Sperber), who admits to being "caught between two extremes, pop music and Maria Callas." But as Horn's movie details, Nomi also got caught in the same trap countless musicians find themselves in: a bad record contract that forces him to compromiseafter two albums, he was sounding more like Soft Cell than Callas. Too bad, because as the movie's last concert footage displays, his opera was much more moving than his pop.
But his record woes were only the beginning of the end.
Out on tour, it was obvious he had become sick, according to the talking heads in Horn's movie. Horn briefly touches on Nomi's aggressive sexual behavior and a bit more on his illness and his friends' inability to deal with it, they say, because the disease was new (called "gay cancer" then) and they didn't know its implications. Nomi died alone.
"He made an incredible impression, and then he was gone," writer Alan Platt says. Horn undercuts that a bit when he tries to broaden the movie's appeal by framing it in clips from the sci-fi classic "It Came From Outer Space."
It's a meaningless gesture: "The Nomi Song" won't draw many who weren't there, either in person or by TV or recordings. For those who were there, it's a cliche. But that's a rare misstep in this full and engaging look at a man who really fell to Earth.
firstname.lastname@example.orgNo MPAA rating (parents cautioned for some general language and descriptions)."The Nomi Song"
Written and directed by Andrew Horn; photographed by Mark Daniels; edited by Angela Christlieb, Guido Krajewski and Eric Schefter; produced by Thomas Mertens, Annette Piscane and Horn. A CV Films and Cameo Film Productions release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36.
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