Before the release of Andrew Horn’s documentary The Nomi Song, Klaus Nomi was not a name you were likely to hear often. Although he teetered on the edge of new wave stardom, Nomi died of AIDS in 1983, before achieving anything near worldwide commercial success. A fan of Maria Callas and Elvis Presley, Nomi used his operatic skill and flair for theater to blend classic pop songs and arias into an intoxicating new wave brew. Perhaps even more perplexing than his voice was his appearance: With Kabuki make-up, giant suits with angular shoulders, and his hair sculpted into spikes, Nomi was a stunning blend of male and female, human and alien. As journalist Alan Platt comments in the film, people who saw Nomi on the street would not ask “Who was that?” but “What was that?”
Through interviews with friends, business associates, and Nomi’s aunt Trude Sperber, Horn’s low-budget documentary paints an entertaining and ultimately touching portrait of a talented but lonely man. Born Klaus Sperber in Essen, West Germany, Nomi relocated to Berlin to attend music school, and in the early ‘70s moved to New York City, where he supported himself with menial jobs while taking voice lessons and making the scene. After dazzling performance artist Ann Magnuson with an impromptu aria performed atop a dirty snow bank, Nomi was invited to perform at a “new wave vaudeville” show, where he wowed the crowd with the Samson and Delilah aria. Magnuson recalls of Nomi’s early performances, “All these young rock ‘n’ rollers who were pretty cynical would just become like statues—stunned.”
Soon Nomi was fronting a full band (complete with dancers and elaborate sets) featuring Kristian Hoffman, Page Wood, Joey Arias, Tony Frere, and others, that played rock clubs like Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah. The band got the attention of David Bowie, who recruited Nomi and Arias as backup singers for his memorable performance on Saturday Night Live in 1979. Nomi’s friends assumed he was headed for the big time, but Bowie’s promise to stay in touch fell through, and Nomi ended up pretty much where he’d started. From here, as Nomi’s drummer/art director Page Wood says in the film, Nomi’s story starts to sound like something from an episode of Behind the Music. On the advice of manager Ron Johnsen, Nomi scrapped his band in favor of more seasoned musicians.
Feeling his career wasn’t moving fast enough, he signed a deal with Spindizzy, which Ron Johnsen describes as a venture capitalist with no knowledge of music or respect for Nomi’s vision. The Spindizzy deal got Nomi a recording contract, but it was far from ideal: Nomi’s self-titled debut saw limited release in Europe and sacrificed much of his avant-garde edge. Kristian Hoffman, who had written some of Nomi’s earliest original material, was cut out of publishing royalties on both the debut and its follow-up, Simple Man. As the bruised egos piled up, Nomi started to experience some success in Europe, but what should have been his triumphant return to New York for a performance at the Mudd Club turned into his swan song: Klaus Nomi died of AIDS in August 1983, having spent most of his final days alone. As his friends meekly admit in the interviews, they were too scared—of the then-new disease and/or the grim reality of death—to visit.
Horn captures the pathos of Nomi’s life not only through interview clips, but with a surprising amount of footage of Nomi himself. It is this footage that best demonstrates the immense talent and heart that lie beneath what could have been nothing more than nightclub kitsch. The Nomi Song‘s flaws don’t lie in what it shows, then, but in how it is shown. Horn bounces between interviewees without any narrative thread, piecing together recollections of Nomi without attention to chronology. After watching the film, we have no idea when Nomi was born, where his parents are, when he died, and most importantly, what he was like as a person. Some might argue that this is a fitting way to handle the story of Klaus Sperber, who created the Nomi character and all its mystery by distancing himself from anything human or knowable. But consider how that other mysterious German pop star, Nico, was humanized—without being demystified—by Susanne Ofteringer’s 1995 documentary Nico/Icon. It wouldn’t have been an impossible task to find the man under the kabuki make-up, but to cut Horn some slack, it would have been difficult. After all, when Klaus Sperber became Nomi, as friend Gabriele La Fari says, “He became an artificial personality.”