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He looked like an alien, but sang like a diva. Klaus Nomi was one of 1980's most profoundly bizarre entertainers—a New Wave cult figure who sang pop music like opera and brought opera to club audiences. His "look" was so strong audiences went wild before he even opened his mouth. On the verge of international fame as a singer, he instead became one of the first prominent artists to die of AIDS. Director Andrew Horn tells Nomi's remarkable story—one of fame, friendship, betrayal, and a performer so unique he is still unforgettable even twenty years after his death. Winner of the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival.

 The Nomi Song

Probably the question I’m most asked is if I actually knew Klaus Nomi. Not that he was a big friend of mine or anything, but we did used to bump into each other on the street often enough. In those days, the East Village was very much like a small town; you were always running into friends and acquaintances and it seemed like everybody knew everybody else’s business. And we were all like a bunch of small town folk in that we were very distrustful of “outsiders” and we never left town if we could help it. Someone once said that the world began below 14th Street and most times it seemed like that was really true. We had our own movie theaters, clubs, newspapers, film industry(!) and even our own TV (even if it was only public access).

Klaus showed up in the neighborhood around the same time I did, around 1974, but I didn’t meet him until a few years later when he was in a theater piece that I did a little work on—a maniacal take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company (almost everyone’s voice was totally shot by the time the show opened), accompanied by a furious four-piece band. Klaus replaced someone about midway into the run and no one to this day (or rather especially today) seems to know where he came from or how he got there. Of course, after that I found myself running into him pretty frequently around the neighborhood.

On one occasion he told me that he just got a restaurant oven delivered to his apartment for a pastry business he was starting but that because he was macrobiotic he couldn’t eat any of the cakes, he could only taste things and spit them out—I could only imagine him going into intense sugar shock if he ever swallowed. Another time he told me he wanted to get a rock band together with some synthesizers and I have to say I was kind of surprised. I just assumed he was some serious opera queen—I had a flash of those famous opera singers who felt they had to put out a pop album, and cringed—so I couldn’t understand what this was supposed to be all about.

Then one day someone dragged me to a show called “New Wave Vaudeville,” which was a sort of local punk version of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (“Hey kids, let’s put on our own show.”) I had already seen Klaus perform in his counter tenor voice, but I was just as knocked out as everyone else in the audience when he appeared onstage dressed as a being from outer space, surrounded by clouds of smoke and flashing lights, singing an aria from an opera by Saint-Saëns. People in the movie keep saying that Klaus struck everybody dumb but I tell you I remember everyone in the audience just screaming through the whole thing (and you can hear it on the soundtrack).

In the meantime, I was busy with my own stuff (doing my first feature film, which took me a couple of years), so I sort of lost track of Klaus ‘til I happened to turn on Saturday Night Live one weekend and saw him singing with David Bowie. Believe me, just the idea of Bowie on network TV in those days was an event in itself, but somehow the sight of Klaus and Joey Arias there with him was at least as impressive to me, if not more so (three freaks in dresses, as someone once described it). Unfortunately that may have been the last time I ever saw or heard of Klaus.

Okay, I was out of it, but not so much out of it that when I had the opportunity to do this film, all I had to do was start calling up all my old friends for contacts, interviews, pictures and old films and videos of Klaus. You could say my strategy consisted of a combination of “six degrees of separation” and “if you stand on the street-corner long enough, the person you’re looking for is bound to pass by.” Also a healthy amount of accident didn’t hurt either. I won’t say it was easy—discovering that an old video of a Nomi show was sitting in some barn in Vermont was one thing, making the guy go out to the barn to dig it out for me could take months. On the other hand it took a big wack of serial phone calling to get me to a guy in Sweden with about an hour of Super 8 sound films in the closet. At least he let me come and rummage through the closet myself.

Putting the whole thing together was both a lot more fun and a lot more horrific than I ever imagined going into it (don’t ask!). It’s amazing what a fundamental belief in what you’re doing—coupled with fear, pressure, anger and guilt—can achieve.

Which brings me to what was, to date, the most hostile question I have been asked. At a screening in Chicago, I was chastised by one viewer for not letting any of the songs play all the way through. This was basically true, though in fact I was able to use quite a bit more of the songs than most such movies do. After going through some immediate feelings of defensiveness and resentment, I realized she had actually paid me a compliment. This woman had come to the show not knowing who Klaus was, and here she was complaining that she couldn’t get enough. I guess I was doing something right.