Alien Opera

The Nomi Song
Directed by Andrew Horn (Palm Pictures DVD)

Much like the willfully enigmatic artist it profiled, Andrew Horn’s 2004 documentary, The Nomi Song, came and went through select art houses here in the States to undeservedly sparse fanfare. Despite having won the “Teddy Bear Award” for Best Documentary Film at the Berlin Film Festival, Horn’s portrait of the late singer/performance artist Klaus Nomi might have seemed a bit too tailored to certain demographics to achieve a wider audience. Now released on DVD with a clutch of archival performance footage, further back-story, anecdotal interviews and other Nomi ephemera appended, the film has been granted a second shot at larger exposure.

Documenting the trajectory of an eccentric yet preternaturally gifted misfit, The Nomi Song details the life and sadly premature death of Klaus Nomi. Born Klaus Sperber in the Bavarian Alps in Germany in 1945, Nomi took his background in German classical opera and his singularly distinctive voice (a piercing, otherworldly falsetto) to the burgeoning East Village of New York City. Amidst the thriving local Punk/New Wave scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Nomi re-invented himself in the fertile bohemian atmosphere of the day, adopting an alien persona to match his suitably alien-sounding talents. Unlike virtually any artist to have graced the scene in question, Nomi’s notoriety swiftly outgrew the community of local clubs, and success seemed just around the corner. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Klaus Nomi became one of the first relatively prominent names to succumb to the AIDS virus, the treatment of which was still in its infancy. As such, Nomi passed away just prior to the advent of MTV, a pop cultural force that might have transformed him from cult figure into superstar.

In terms of the special features of the DVD, I’d have to say the highlights are the full performances of Nomi’s songs, notably a stirring rendition of “The Cold Song” with a full symphonic accompaniment. Among the deleted scenes, there’s a heartbreaking account of photographer Michael Halsband’s experience visiting Nomi in the hospital during his final days in an environment of AIDS-paranoid hysteria. Given the emotional gravity of this particular episode, it’s understandable why Horn chose to remove it from the finished project, but one can’t help thinking it would’ve lent the film far more resonance. Beyond this, there are other curiosities such as the recipe for Klaus’ renowned lime tart (his first job in the States was that of a pastry chef) and a period-relevant slide show of the East Village when it was more of a hotbed of creativity and less populated by Gap outlets and wine bars.

Both a fascinating time capsule and a poignant human tragedy, The Nomi Song is a loving tribute to this criminally under-sung artist. It also serves as an account of the era of New Wave that refreshingly extends well beyond the usual touchstones (Blondie, Talking Heads) and intimately depicts a side of downtown Manhattan that has all but vanished. - Alex Smith

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Mr. Smith is a native New Yorker who lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife and daughter, works for Time Magazine, and writes for The New Yorker and other periodicals.

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