Director: Andrew Horn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Klaus Nomi (nee Sperber) was a German emigrant to New York City who became a local legend on the performance art scene, had a brush with larger fame, and died of AIDS before anyone knew what AIDS was in 1983 at the age of 39. If, like me and my normally musically astute husband, you’ve never heard of him, that’s understandable. Nomi very nearly didn’t break out of the New York underground art scene and died just as his career was poised to take off. Through the use of current interviews with those who knew Nomi, archival footage of his performances, home movies and photographs, and a filmed interview with Nomi himself, director Horn pieces together a story both familiar and particular, and surprisingly moving.
In many ways, Nomi’s artistic journey was a typical coming-to-America tale. He had grown up in Germany listening to opera. Enchanted, he went to Berlin and swept floors at the opera house so he could have access to the performances. He must have received vocal training, though the film is vague on this point. Taking off for New York, he typically waited tables and washed dishes as he tried to find himself.
We don’t really learn about how his amazing talent came to light among the New York vanguard until actress and performance artist Ann Magnuson recalls a spontaneous operatic aria he performed late at night on top of a frozen pile of dirty New York snow. If the opera scene had been more open at that time to countertenors, Nomi might have found his voice in a different arena. Instead, Magnuson urged Nomi to perform in the New Wave Vaudeville Show, where his ethereal rendering of “Mon coeur s’ouver a ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah while wearing kabuki make-up and an angular plastic tunic mesmerized the cynical insider crowd. So odd was his look and his voice that the emcee had to come out every night he performed and assure the audience that he was not lip-synching to a recording.
The lark of the vaudeville show moved on to the lark of forming a “band” and staging a show at Max’s Kansas City. Several nonmusicians backed Nomi, and songwriter David McDermott created staging and songs for the appearance. Opening with the Lesley Gore song “Lightning Strikes” seemed to McDermott a good way to ease audiences into the Nomi experience. Indeed, Nomi himself was an artist who found a fusion between pop/cabaret and classical to suit his interests perfectly. What is truly remarkable—and it was remarked upon by many of the interviewees in the film—is that Klaus’ persona seemed fully formed as early as the vaudeville show. Whatever was done to showcase Nomi either complemented him or clashed with him—nothing ever violated or changed him.
Much is made of how Nomi and his friends thought of themselves as creatures from outer space. Klaus’ trademark wide-shouldered, plastic tuxedo, stiff crown of hair, and squared bow of a mouth certainly did make him seem like a creature from another planet trying to adopt earthling looks. Indeed, Horn begins and ends his film with a clip from a B-scifi film from the 50s that shows a spaceship land and take off. I think the emphasis on Klaus’ alien identity is a bit overblown. This type of imagery was part of the late 70s and 80s zeitgeist, popularized by the band Devo and the great appropriator David Bowie. Bowie, hearing about Nomi’s popularity, asked him and his bandmate Joey Arias to perform back-up for Bowie’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, during which Bowie grabbed Nomi’s style. What to Bowie was just another reinvention was the essence of Nomi. Watching that clip was like watching bluesmen being ripped off by Elvis Presley—and irony for Nomi, who loved Elvis.
Nomi eventually came to see that his ragtag band of friends and coconspirators were holding him back. He was a genuine artist who wanted to reach wide. He left them for what McDermott calls the typical record contract that rips artists off. Actually, it didn’t look that way to me. McDermott got ripped off for some song credits, but Nomi actually got a gold record out of his association with French RCA, wide recognition in Europe and Japan, and a second record that likely would have had great success if Nomi had not died.
Nomi’s end proved a lot about the times, particularly in New York City. His friends from the old days felt betrayed and did not see him while he lay dying in the hospital. They even went so far as to say they loved him but they just couldn’t deal. Although the film concentrates almost exclusively on Nomi’s professional life (personal reminiscences by his aunt are dealt with in voiceover with a cardboard diorama of a homey room and his aunt’s head pasted onto a cardboard cutout), Nomi’s essential sweetness escapes and permeates the film. For example, he is shown on a local TV show baking a lemon tart, speaking openly and sincerely about how to do it. Nomi, the most artificial creature one could imagine, was also the most genuine person in this film. I actually cried when the film announced his death. And I was angry with the hangers-on and scenesters who wanted to ride his plastic coattails to fame and fortune. How 80s.
Finally, I am left reflecting on the aria meant for the character of Delilah that started it all. Here is what the San Diego Opera’s Operapaedia has to say about Samson and Delilah:
Musicologists and opera lovers have been involved in the ‘oratorio vs. opera’ argument since the work’s first public performances… The fact that there is a limited amount of dramatic action in an opera where the characters essentially ‘stand and sing’ and the two-dimensional quality of the characterization of the male personae in the opera does not help. Neither does the fact that Saint-Saëns chose a biblical subject, the normative literary source for all oratorios. But it is Delilah and her alone that moves this work to be seriously considered an opera. She is three-dimensional, a character of depth whose motivations are more psychological than an oratorio-bound biblical character would normally be allowed.
Although Klaus has a signature “The Nomi Song,” it is this aria that truly is his song. l