Thursday, May 29, 2014

From the Archives: Andrew Horn's documentary 'The Nomi Song'

Remembering Klaus Nomi on Film

By Steven Rosen
From Los Angeles Times
Feb. 3, 2005

The artist Kenny Scharf was listening to “Jonesy’s Jukebox” on Indie 103.1 FM recently when he heard a Klaus Nomi song – a version of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” He was startled.

 “That was the first time I ever heard Klaus Nomi on the radio,” he says during a phone call.

And it took him back. East Village – late 1970s, during New York’s celebrated New Wave era of creative activity. Scharf was attracting attention as a fashionable young painter; Nomi was applying his ethereal falsetto-based countertenor voice to both arias and old pop hits. When he performed in clubs, he dressed like a high-fashion space alien who had fallen to earth to study Kabuki. Their apartments shared a courtyard and Scharf could hear Nomi practice. They became friends.

“His voice was otherworldly – you couldn’t believe the sound,” recalls Scharf, now living in L.A., his hometown. “And in combination with the way he looked, he was captivating. In our circle, he was a superstar. And we all wanted him to have mass success, but I guess he was too bizarre for the masses. But maybe if he hadn’t gotten sick and died, he would have crossed over.”

The short, strange career of this unusual singer is the subject of Andrew Horn’s new documentary, “The Nomi Song,” opening Feb. 4 at the NuArt Theatre. It primarily covers the years between his startling 1978 New York club debut – which was captured on film – and his death from AIDS in 1983 at age 39.

During that time, he had fallings-out with old friends and collaborators as he tried for mainstream success. He never had an album officially released in the U.S., but became popular in France, his native Germany and among New York club goers. (There have been posthumous U.S. releases of his European-released discs.)

Nomi’s high-concept stage show and theatrical look were striking. Among his favorite costumes was a triangular vinyl tuxedo that conjured images of an Expressionist penguin. His sharply angular hair seemed designed by a landscape architect. Combined with wide lost-child eyes and decorous facial makeup, he had a hypnotic effect on his audiences.

And his voice was siren-like when tackling the art songs he loved like Saint-Saens’ “Mon Coeur” aria from "Samson and Delilah” and Henry Purcell’s solemn “The Cold Song.”  His music director Kristian Hoffman wrote some rock  songs for him, too, as well as helping him and his band choose melodramatic oldies like Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes.”

As the Berlin-based Horn explains during a recent Los Angeles visit, Nomi’s show was meant not as camp but as a legitimate part of New York’s varied pop/rock scene of the time. While the Ramones chose punk, for instance, he chose opera. “He was against the anti-professionalism of punk,” Horn says. “He was a guy with a superbly trained voice not trying to be raw. He was trying to make an operatic spectacle within the means he had.”

Born Klaus Sperber in Germany to a single mother during World War II, Nomi studied music as a teen, idolized Maria Callas, and worked as an usher at Berlin’s Deutsche Opera. He moved to New York in the early 1970s, first finding work as a pastry chef.

“The Nomi Song’s” two German producers, Thomas Mertens and Annette Pisacane, had made “Nico Icon” about another German-born singer who became a tragic cult figure in New York rock circles. They approached Horn, a Manhattanite who had been living in Berlin since 1989. In 1997, he had co-directed “East Side Story,” on the history of Soviet and Eastern European movie musicals.

By chance, Horn had known Sperber in New York before he adopted his “Klaus Nomi” persona. (The name is an anagram of his favorite magazine, Omni.) “I’d see him around the East Village and my impression was he was an opera singer, or wanted to be one,” Horn says. “And one day I met him and he said he wanted to become a rock ‘n’ roll singer and have a band and work with synthesizers. I found that really bizarre – like Pavarotti doing the Beatles.”

“The Nomi Song’s” footage of the performer’s debut at New Wave Vaudeville Night at the Irving Plaza nightclub still packs a wallop. After smoke bombs and light flashes, he slowly emerges on stage in exotic costume and amid robotic movements sings “Mon Coeur.” A career was launched – or so it seemed.

Ann Magnuson, now a Los Angeles-based actress and performance artist, was the director of that variety show and still gets a shiver describing the scene. “At first, there was a lot of cheering because there were smoke bombs going off,” she says in a phone interview. “And then when he started singing the aria, people became silent. The beauty of it transcended everything. It was completely out of nowhere, as if the mothership had landed. There was stillness – shock.”

While Nomi’s act was based on being a make-believe alien, he became an all-too-real societal outsider once he became sick with AIDS. The film reveals that many of his acquaintances were afraid to visit. Hoffman, now an L.A.-based singer-songwriter, was one of those who avoided Nomi at the end.

“The movie made me feel better about the guilt I’ve carried around for 30 years,” he says via phone. “I remember he called me from the hospital and said, ‘I have that AIDS.’ He wasn’t even sure what it was. There was a climate of fear at the time. We didn’t know if it was airborne, so it was self-preservation. For years I didn’t know how to relate to myself for being so fearful. Now I know I wasn’t alone.”


Friday, May 23, 2014

Film Review | Fed Up

AlterNet 5/20/14

The Kids Are Not All Right
Inside the World's Child Obesity Epidemic

by Thomas Delapa 

When the curtain came down on Clifford Odets’ legendary 1935 New York opening of his agit-prop broadside Waiting for Lefty, audience members rose from their seats and stormed out of the theater, shouting “Strike!” in solidarity with the taxi-cab drivers and the Depression-era working class portrayed in the play.

Once the lights go up in theaters following Fed Up, audiences may have the urge to race down to their grocery stores, fast-food outlets and school cafeterias, yelling, “We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to eat it anymore!”

An appetizing, bite-sized brand of advocacy documentary, Fed Up is an alarming yet tardy wakeup call on the crisis of U.S. childhood obesity. This is not a syrupy, feel-good story à la My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It is the sad, stomach-churning saga of my big fat American child.

Filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped)narrator/co-producer Katie Couric, and author Laurie David team up for a 90-minute serving of facts, figures and interviews on how American kids have been increasingly super-sized over the past 30 years, largely the result of a sugar- and fat-heavy diet that is literally to die for.

Fed Up might go down as the Inconvenient Truth of the pediatric health crisis, a plus-size omnivore's dilemma not limited to expanding U.S. waistlines, but globally too. Over the course of two years, Soechtig and her cameras check up on the misfortunes of a small group of corpulent kids, each struggling to battle the bulge with the help of their parents. This is not some cheesy, sensationalized Biggest Loser reality show, but the real story of children who can’t seem to win against a powerful, hydra-headed foe made up of food and beverage industry giants, commercial media and U.S. government policies that have sucker-punched kids square in the gut.

Of course, the plight of overweight kids (and adults) has been on the plate of U.S. news reporting for years, but Soechtig and company slice it up into easily digestible, fact-driven portions. To name a few:
  • Over 80% of the products in a typical grocery contain added sugar.
  • Two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, costing billions of dollars each year in rising healthcare costs, not to mention the psychological price paid in depression and poor self-esteem, especially in teens.
  • A generic 12-ounce can of soda is loaded with a shocking 10 spoonfuls of sugar, which takes an hour or more of brisk bike-riding to burn off.
In one big gulp of not-so-fun facts, we learn that sugar is sugar, metabolically speaking, whether it’s called sucrose, dextrose, cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. The skinny on sugar is that it is fiendishly addictive, and when digested without the fiber normally associated with good diets, simply leaves us hungry and craving more. In one study, sugar was found to be eight times more addictive than cocaine.

It’s bad enough that kids today are targeted by a caloric cornucopia of TV commercials, marketing schemes and insidious product placements, all formulated to prod them into stuffing their faces with junk food. School cafeterias were once a haven for healthy (if bland) balanced lunches. But since the infiltration of the fast-food industry into cash-hungry public schools, they’ve been made over into “7-11s with books.” Pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, fried chicken, cookies, and those nasty nachos are high on the daily McMenu. Now kids have it their way every day, enabled by soda machines they can’t just say no to.

Soechtig persuasively offers that the U.S. government—and specifically the Department of Agriculture— have a place at the table of nutritional shame. On one hand, the government is tasked to protect children through lunch programs and “food pyramid” guidelines; yet it is also asked to serve the food and dairy industries, doling out regulations as well as billion-dollar yearly farm subsidies and loans. And any time politicians place an order for tougher dietary demands (like Sen. George McGovern did in 1977), armed-to-the-teeth agribusiness lobbyists go into a feeding frenzy. Beware, you may gag when a McDonald's spokeswoman earnestly shills, “Ronald McDonald never sells to children...he inspires through magic and fun.”

Even Michelle Obama, first mom and initiator of the ballyhooed “Let’s Move” campaign aimed to push kids into exercise, has had to take the “demonizing” of junk food off the front burner. To experts such as Michael Pollan (Food Rules) and Gary Taubes (Why We Get Fat), dietary ditties such as “energy balance” and “eat less, exercise more” cooked up by industry apologists are empty panaceas, essentially laying all the blame on the overweight and obese. Soechtig shows the kids trying their best to run and swim to shed pounds, but her cameras also catch one slouched in an easy chair, gobbling down chips while eating up a TV show. A lower grade for her failure to note that gym classes have also been victims of crash budgetary diets; meanwhile, back at home suburban parents drive their kids everywhere, making walking to school—and play—as old-school as saddle shoes. 

Are soda and other junk foods the “cigarettes of the 21st century,” as one expert warns? Other countries have begun banning junk-food ads expressly aimed at children. In the U.S. those ubiquitous “nutrition facts” labels fatuously omit recommended daily allowances for sugars.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: American children are hugely at risk, and if parents and teachers aren’t sick to their stomachs yet, they’ll never be.