The Nomi Song
out of ****
Johnny Depp has been accused in recent months of modeling his performance of Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after Michael Jackson. The argument could be made: Both characters share a reclusive nature, pasty-white faces, fantasy worlds that have immense appeal for children, and frankly bizarre, colorful outfits. Depp denies the Wonka/Jackson connection, but the existence of The Nomi Song certainly doesn’t support his case, as it continues to confirm that Depp has an obsession with channeling eccentric musicians in his performances (he also claimed to base his Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean after Keith Richards): The resemblance between Depp’s Edward Scissorhands and the underground rock musician Klaus Nomi, the subject of this film, is utterly uncanny, right down to the makeup, mannerisms, stiff movement, and doll-like appearance. While I have been a longtime listener of Klaus Nomi’s music, The Nomi Song featured invaluable (for me, anyway) concert performances, and the more I watched, the more I was convinced: Edward Scissorhands is Klaus Nomi; there is simply no way around it!
This speculation is really just an aside: The Nomi Song doesn’t have anything to do with Johnny Depp or Edward Scissorhands, but I mention them both because of the way that this peculiar documentary seems to have more in common with the weird films and creepy characters of Tim Burton than it does with noted documentaries about famed musicians (a la Martin Scorsese’s recent No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) or VH1’s “Behind the Music” television show. Klaus Nomi is such an oddity that Ziggy Stardust would give pause—and in fact, he did.
Nomi, the film reveals, was a German immigrant and trained opera singer who came to New York in the late seventies, just in time to catch the New Wave/avaunt garde movement. With his almost horrifying, android-like persona and sometimes nightmarish combination of synthesizer, rock, and opera, he built a fan base so large that people lined up for hours just to see him perform—seemingly because they were so bewildered by his oddness that it generated a peculiar attraction. Indeed, Nomi’s public persona didn’t even seem to be of any recognizable species, and as one diehard fan notes, “We weren’t asking, ‘Who is that?’ We were all asking, ‘What is that?’”
The mystery of The Nomi Song is found in the unknown motivation behind Nomi’s fans, many of whom remain to this day as loyal as ever as they continue to obsess over his albums. It is difficult to know if such fans came because they sincerely liked his music or if Nomi was just so odd that they simply couldn’t resist staring at him. The film doesn’t have the answer, but then, we’re not sure if Nomi did either. One of the questions that director/writer Andrew Horn continuously asks is if Nomi really took himself seriously, or if he was aware that the attraction to him was less about his skills as a musician and more about the fact that he had the greatest freak show in town.
We’ll never know what Nomi thought of himself: On the brink of international stardom with two albums that were slowly building worldwide acclaim both among rock fans and opera patrons, Nomi died of AIDS in 1983, and his legacy in the world of music slammed to a halt. These days, Nomi is more of a forgotten New Wave figurehead than anything else, primarily noted for singing background to David Bowie’s infamous skirt-wearing appearance on “Saturday Night Live” than for his own musical contributions. His music was too bizarre—perhaps even too homoerotic—to sell to the masses, but as an underground cult sensation, there have been few personalities that compare to Klaus Nomi.
One thing is certain: The man was a brilliant musician, capable of blending rock anthems and operatic arias as if they were a match made in heaven. That he resembled a life-size porcelain doll only added to his mystique, but the makeup and costumes were probably just gimmicks to attract people to his innovative musical style that introduced falsetto opera to rock music and, as a result, forced classical aficionados to take his New Wave rock seriously. If Nomi is so obscure today, it has little to do with his strange style and more to do with a combination of bad luck (lousy record deals), bad timing (in a few more years, the New Wave lifestyle would start releasing its influence all over the rest of the world, but at the time of Nomi, it was considered a small movement by a bunch of weirdos in New York City), and bad lifestyle choices (his promiscuity led to AIDS). Today, you’re hard pressed to find many people outside of New York who even remember him.
Nomi’s obscurity, however undeserved, leads us to The Nomi Song’s key stumbling block, which it is never able to overcome: You probably haven’t heard of Klaus Nomi, and I’m not sure if anyone who hasn’t heard of him will care to see this film at all, as it merely celebrates him without trying to make him accessible to the layman. It is less successful than, say, No Direction Home at bridging the gap between the fans and the uninitiated: Klaus Nomi doesn’t come to life as much as Bob Dylan in that film, because as a musician, he wasn’t a legend but merely a blip on the musical radar screen who, as one fan recalls, “came out of nowhere, did some extraordinary music, and then he was gone.” The Nomi Song is an interesting footnote about one of the New Wave’s greatest heroes, but it doesn’t explore the larger implications of the era in a way that will inform the outsider or make him interested in exploring more. The film begins and ends with Klaus Nomi, who is certainly interesting subject matter, but is he enough to justify anyone but his fans in seeing the film?
I leave this question for my readers to decide. What I can tell you is that Klaus Nomi was about as bizarre as they come, and more talented than most musicians on your CD rack. Precedence indicates that you will either love his off-the-wall style of music or hate it so much that The Nomi Song will not only be boring, but utterly intolerable. Yet as a fan of his peculiar music and personality, I appreciate this film on its own terms: It is a love letter to a musician that the filmmakers, also devoted Nomi fans, refuse to let die. On that level, it does its job, and Nomi’s small fan base will flock to see it. I shamelessly admit to being a part of that flock. I just wish that the film could have done a better job convincing those who have never heard of this strange little man why he should matter to them. Perhaps a Tim Burton biopic is due for Nomi, and you already know who I think he should cast.
Featuring Music By:
Evan Franco & Patrick Petzhold
A Palm Pictures release. Written and directed by Andrew Horn. No M.P.A.A. rating (contains crude language and brief nudity). Running time: 98 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: February 4, 2005.