Klaus Sperber, a slightly built young man from Essen, Germany, hit Manhattan by way of Berlin with an ethereal, operatically trained voice and a powerful need to perform. In the East Village explosion of performance art, he found his first audience, as Klaus Nomi, at the New Wave Vaudeville Show, where the emcee felt compelled to remind the crowd that Nomi wasn't lip-synching; his crystalline soprano, so otherworldly and out of context on pop tunes like "Lightning Strikes," was the real thing. Nomi became frontman of a ragtag rock band, and with his Callas-meets-Bowie repertoire stunned seen-it-all club crowds and fashionistas in shows at Max's Kansas City and Fiorucci's uptown boutique.
With the help of a team of art and musical directors, Nomi honed to perfection his sci-fi stage character, and caught the attention of no less a style maven than David Bowie. Among the well orchestrated archival material, much of it being shown publicly for the first time, is Nomi's stint as backup singer for Bowie on "Saturday Night Live." The 1979 appearance wasn't the beginning of great things, as Nomi & Co. expected. Increasingly frustrated that he hadn't achieved the fame he believed he'd earned, Nomi jettisoned his band and made some bad deals before connecting with European fans. He fell ill just as his star was ascending.
The film's chief drawback is its failure to provide a clear timeline or identify performances. But eloquent talking heads--among them actress Ann Magnuson and artist Kenny Scharf--more than compensate, the artful backdrops to their interviews a fitting homage to the hyper-design of Nomi's world. Most impressive is Horn's seamless, affecting interweaving of visuals and music, and his decision to show performances at length. The power of even the muddiest B&W images is remarkable, Nomi's delicate whiteface visage penetrating the murk, his falsetto pure and free of irony. In footage of him in everyday clothes, traipsing through New York and talking about himself (in German), he's supremely endearing--making his lonely final days all the more heartrending. Directed and written by Andrew Horn. Produced by Thomas Mertens, Annette Pisacane and Andrew Horn. A Palm release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 99 min