A superstar in the hippest circles, a curiosity when he hit the road, Klaus Nomi embodied the highly localized spirit of self-invention that characterized early-'80s New York. A classically trained operatic tenor from Germany, Nomi raised his voice a register and began delivering impassioned arias in a new-wave vaudeville revue. He stopped the show with his voice, but his appearance alone might have done the trick. Adopting outrageous Mars-by-way-of-a-Weimar-cabaret outfits, distinctive hair, and an expression drained of emotion, Nomi looked like a fragile robot. He captured, as one interview subject in Andrew Horn's new documentary The Nomi Song remembers, an "androgyny beyond androgyny," going past sexual ambiguity to suggest he might be another species.
Mixing Saint-Saëns with Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes" and appropriately weird originals, Nomi became enough of a cult sensation in New York clubs to attract the attention of David Bowie, who brought him aboard as a backup singer for a Saturday Night Live appearance. Nomi rolled that into a record contract, but labels never quite knew what to do with him. Neither did most of the public: The Nomi Song offers a New Jersey gig opening for Twisted Sister as a particular low point. The question of whether they would have figured it out remains open, due to Nomi's AIDS-related death in 1983.
Horn's documentary sticks to interviews and stock footage, never finding a form as strangely glamorous as its subject. Fortunately, Nomi meets the film more than halfway. No matter how much his friends remember him as a fundamentally nice guy, his image and the unearthly sounds he created keep their own secrets. Even some footage of Nomi wearing a smile and cooking pastry on local New York television doesn't shatter the enigma. In the histories of music and New York performance art, he remains a footnote, but he's the kind of footnote that makes those histories worth exploring in the first place. Horn doesn't leave him in the past, either. Without coming out and saying it, The Nomi Song creates the sense that its subject might simply have been a few hundred years ahead of his time.