Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

  • Music:

[REVIEW] The Nomi Song

I have the Toronto public library system and talktooloose's kind invitation to thank for letting me catch Andrew Horn's 2004 documentary The Nomi Song this Sunday afternoon just past. The Nomi Song is a film biography of the German-born New Wave singer Klaus Nomi, who combined opera with pop music and a decidedly futuristic and androgynous image, who was on the verge of achieving broad success before his premature death in 1983 of AIDS, The Nomi Song won multiple awards and broad recognition, these not so much for its conventional presentation of Nomi's biography through period film and interviews with his surviving friends as for the strength of its narrative, of an outsider's delayed success horribly interrupted by AIDS back when it was still an unknown disease.

The film concentrates on the trajectory of his career in New York, starting (according to Horn) when Ann Magnuson invited Klaus Sperber, a recent German immigrant as well-known for his pastries as for his falsetto, to perform at her New Wave Vaudeville Night concert after she saw him give an impromptu performance late one winter night under a New York streetlight on top of a mound of snow. He performed his cover of Saint-Saëns' aria "Samson et Delilah" stunning a raucous crowd into silence. Horn then goes on to describe Nomi's rise to fame, on the basis of his remarkable voice and with the help of his musician colleagues Kristian Hoffman and Man Parrish, climaxing December 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live as one of David Bowie's backup singers. After that, things accelerated for Nomi: successful tours in Europe and the Midwest, a noteworthy performance in Urgh! A Music War, by 1982 success as a single artist in western Europe with his classical songs, most famously Purcell's "Cold Song."

One theme that I noticed was Horn's concentration on Nomi's questions of identity. Nomi speaks in this documentary only through snippets of a single German-language interview, talking about his childhood in Germany and his love for Elvis Presley and Maria Callas, so The Nomi Song is biased. Nomi's friends and colleagues, however, talk at length about his loneliness and isolation, about how the radically self-constructed persona of Klaus Nomi further isolated him, and how in his search for chart success he cut off his ties with New York's New Wave scene for a more polished look. The former Klaus Sperber was successful all the same, and Pamela Rosenthal, the president of his fan club, recounted how the mood at a celebratory party in New York was overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. By 1982, he was already sick from undiagnosed AIDS. The most painful part of the film came when Horn showed a clip of Nomi's performance of "Cold Song" backed by a full orchestra, his vocals cut short as he was short of breath, walking gingerly down the steps of the raised dais as the applause resounded. The interviews that followed that clip talked mainly about how terribly ironic it was that a man who achieved such success through his manipulated image would die of a disease that so horribly assaulted his body, how they were so terrified of his illness that few of them came to see him in his last days, and how cheated and angry they felt at Nomi's premature death at 39.

The Nomi Song struck me as a nice introduction to the New Wave scene in late 1970s/early 1980s New York, and as a better overview of Nomi's career. Certain things were missing, most notably anything from Nomi's best friend and collaborator Joey Arias, but I was quite satisfied. I did end up feeling as if Nomi was a performer who, as Kristian Hoffman wrote in Nomi's obituary, "was always a message of great instinctive hope," and whose own artistic project was hopeful until he died. The success of The Nomi Song suggests that there still may be some life yet. As Nomi sang in "After The Fall," there's always life.

So I told you 'bout the total eclipse now,
but still it caught you unaware,
but I'm telling you, hold on, hold on,
tomorrow will be there.
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