Verses Missing In 'Nomi Song'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

ALIEN. GNOMISH. Ethereal. Androgynous. Refined. Elfin. Exhibitionistic. A freak show.

These are just a few of the many descriptions offered up in loving memory of the strange little singer born Klaus Sperber in 1944 Bavaria-- a performer who would go on to achieve brief cult celebrity in the downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s -- by some of the many friends, artistic collaborators and acquaintances who reminisce about him in Andrew Horn's mostly fascinating, but occasionally frustrating, documentary, "The Nomi Song."

Oh, and there's one more description that comes up again and again in various forms: prodigiously talented.

Rechristening himself Klaus Nomi (a stage persona defined by space-age kabuki makeup, robotic movements and rigorously faithful, falsetto-rendered selections from opera mixed with quirky pop oldies), the pastry-chef-turned-singer arrived on the scene via the New Wave Vaudeville performance series organized by performance artist and actress Ann Magnuson and others and held at New York's Irving Plaza nightclub. Watching a clip of that early appearance and hearing Nomi's crystalline voice, which seems to emanate from somewhere other than his chest cavity, it's easy to see why many in the audience doubted that they were listening to a live singer. The act, even now, comes across as so otherworldly that it plays as something more akin to Andy Kaufmanesque lip-syncing than singing.

David Bowie, in fact, was so impressed by Nomi that he drafted him as a backup singer for a "Saturday Night Live" appearance. That brush with fame, however, ultimately did not lead to the kind of mainstream success that Nomi and his associates hoped for, and the disappointment is one of the film's more poignant moments in a story of a brief but brightly sparkling career.

That, and the discussion of Nomi's 1983 death by AIDS, which was then known with ignorance and terror as some kind of "gay cancer." It's sad, of course, especially given Nomi's obvious gifts, but it would be sadder still if Horn's film were able to give us more of a picture of who Nomi really was.

Despite all the interviews with those who knew him -- including a German aunt, presented in voiceover along with a weird, Joseph Cornell-style collage based on what I can only assume is an old snapshot of the woman -- and despite even some snippets of a conversation with the artist himself, there remains a maddening emptiness where the film's ostensible subject should be. As journalist Alan Platt recalls, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, "deep down" Nomi was "very superficial." What's more, there is an annoying lack of on-screen dates that would help to place Nomi's rapid rise and decline in a historical context. Sure, it's a brief window we're talking about, but a date here or there, such as for the "SNL" appearance, would be helpful.

But the biggest void is the one beneath the hairspray, pancake makeup and outlandish costumes. Beneath Klaus Sperber's scrupulously guarded mask, it seems, beneath all the surface behavior and artifice designed to resemble someone -- or something -- that wasn't quite human, it's hard to discern the man who made such beautiful music for such a flickering moment in time.

THE NOMI SONG (Unrated, 98 minutes) -- Contains brief nudity and obscenity. In English and some German with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company