Lament for the New Wave singer

Klaus Nomi lived a life that made fiction seem mundane

Those wishing to debate the age-old question of whether life imitates art or vice versa will find the point moot in examining the life of performance artist and singer Klaus Nomi. That’s because for Nomi, the subject of Andrew Horn’s 2004 documentary, “The Nomi Song,” the two were one in the same; Nomi’s life was the show.

Horn, who won the Teddy Award for best documentary film at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, found in the life of the late Nomi a story too strange not to be told.

Nomi arrived on the New York club scene from West Germany and made his debut in a small-time vaudeville show in 1978.

His talents were both as a performance artist and as a singer; he spent years perfecting an other-worldly, androgynous persona, complete with exaggerated white face makeup, black lips and a wardrobe of translucent plastic capes.

Beyond his aesthetics, however, was his voice. Nomi sang classical opera in a clear, soprano falsetto.

His freakish appearance and prodigious talent made him a growing attraction at New York clubs throughout the late 1970s, his national career peaking in 1980 after appearing on “Saturday Night Live” with David Bowie.

In the early 1980s, he finally acquired a record deal. After producing only two records, Nomi was diagnosed with HIV, which was then only known as a “gay cancer.” He died in 1983.

The facts of Nomi’s life alone would undoubtedly make for an intriguing documentary. However, it is in moving beyond the absurd to the human that Horn’s film draws its real strength. Through sci-fi film clips, scenes of live and television performances, music videos and interviews, Horn creates an illuminating, contextual picture of the new-wave movement as a whole.

More importantly, a portrait emerges of a lonely man who was also an artistic visionary.

Though the overall tone of the film is one of admiration, Horn complicates the picture by interviewing a wide variety of subjects. Friends, collaborators and an aunt reveal their feelings of ambivalence toward Nomi, from anger at his irresponsible sexual behavior to guilt over not visiting him in his final days.

In addition, the homemade sets behind each interviewee add to the film’s overall low-tech appeal.

The film ends as it began, the persona and life of Nomi still enigmatic. One is left pondering the paradoxical nature of Nomi’s existence as a manufactured persona who was also somehow quite genuine – an alienated alien whose voice spoke to the outcast in each of us.

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