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Freaks and Geeks

Documentaries on new-wave icon Klaus Nomi and a real-life School of Rock

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The Nomi Song

*** (A must see)

Written and directed by Andrew Horn

Rock School

*** (A must see)

Written and directed by Don Argott

When I began playing in bands as a high schooler, my parents were afraid the experience would lead me to alcohol and drugs, and fortunately they were right. But the real narcotics dangled before me by rock music were community and individuality, both irresistible highs to any teenager. While performing in bands I formed some of my most enduring friendships, and the attention I got from my peers seriously bolstered my self-esteem. But the tension between community and individuality became evident soon enough: no kid graduates from rock school without learning to preen, and as soon as a musician is good enough to get onstage, the communal fun of making music begins to compete with the lure of the spotlight.

That tension runs through two excellent rock documentaries opening this weekend. In Rock School filmmaker Don Argott provides a guided tour of the Paul Green School of Rock Music in downtown Philadelphia, an after-school program in which kids ages 9 through 17 are grouped into bands, assigned set lists, and propelled toward live performances. Green pokes and prods his young students, encouraging the insecure kids and mercilessly berating the lazy or egotistical ones, but always baiting them with better shows and bigger ovations. Andrew Horn's The Nomi Song profiles otherworldly new-wave singer Klaus Nomi, who began his career at the center of a little underground art collective in the late 70s but whose incredible transformation into a sort of Brechtian space alien quarantined him long before he became one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS.

Like a lot of music fans, I got my first glimpse of Nomi when he appeared as a backup singer for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in December 1979, and my first eyeful when Nomi belted out the soprano chorus of "Total Eclipse" in the concert movie Urgh! A Music War (1981). What Bowie promised, Nomi delivered: with his trained countertenor, neo-Kabuki makeup, stylized art deco costumes, and proudly gay marriage of rock and grand opera, he was the strangest pop singer I'd ever seen. In those days punk and new wave were still considered pretty bizarre stuff in middle America, and Nomi was beyond the beyond, a visitor from another dimension. Looking at him, you realized that identity could be a dangerous drug, and that overindulging in it could push you outside the bounds of human contact.

As recalled in The Nomi Song, the singer was just as lonely and isolated in real life: born Klaus Sperber and raised by an aunt, he worked as an usher at the Berlin opera before following a lover across the Atlantic to New York City and falling in with the post-Factory crowd in the East Village. The movie collects testimony from many of the people--including performance artist Ann Magnuson, painter Kenny Scharf, art director Page Wood, and musician Kristian Hoffman--who congregated around the shy Berliner now calling himself Klaus Nomi. Together they created the elaborate "Nomi show" that showcased his offbeat talents and took the New York club scene by storm. Their memories of that feverish creative community are warm and vivid, but Nomi eventually shrugged them off in standard rock-star fashion: frustrated by his inability to break out of New York, he signed with RCA Records in France and cut loose his East Village band for a crew of hired guns.

The Nomi Song is pieced together from photos, performance footage, and talking-head interviews, but director Andew Horn (who also collaborated on the fascinating East Side Story, about movie musicals behind the iron curtain) has taken great care to fashion a strong story arc. The turning point comes when Nomi abandons the East Village in pursuit of greater stardom, and his subsequent death provides a tragic, nearly operatic climax. Many of the subjects admit that they never visited Nomi as he was dying, though apparently he contacted everyone he knew in search of solace. Some were angry at his shabby treatment of them; others were frightened by his strange new illness, still popularly referred to as "gay cancer." In a poignant anecdote, journalist Alan Platt recalls seeing Nomi backstage at the height of his fame; the singer stood alone, so weird-looking that no one wanted to approach him. But Platt's five-year-old daughter walked right up to him, and they sat down together to discuss life on Mars. In the context of the movie, she seems like the only real friend Nomi ever had.

Screenwriter Mike White claims that he'd never heard of the Paul Green School of Rock Music when he scripted Richard Linklater's charming comedy School of Rock. But the similarities between Green and Dewey Finn, the maniacal heavy-metal guitarist played by Jack Black, are striking to say the least. In the coda to School of Rock Dewey leaves his star-crossed teaching gig to launch an after-school music program for kids in his apartment; Green's school began in 1998 as a Saturday-afternoon class in his, and by the time Argott began shooting his documentary, enrollment had expanded to 120 students. In Rock School, Green is a tyrant, bellowing at his young charges like Buddy Rich on a bad night, but he gets results: at the end he chaperones a dozen-odd kids on a trip to Bad Doberan, Germany, where they perform a set of Frank Zappa tunes for the 2003 Zappanale festival, wowing the assembled fanatics with their mastery of Zappa's sophisticated modes and rhythms.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from these prodigies are Asa and Tucker Collins, talentless nine-year-old twins who make their performing debut as lead singers for a Black Sabbath cover band. Their barely competent show, which comes shortly after the midpoint of the movie, provides a comic counterpoint to the Zappa band's triumph. Andrea Collins, the twins' mother, readily admits that she always wanted to be in a rock band and that she's living vicariously through her kids. Before the show she does the twins' ghoulish makeup, carefully painting the letters O-Z-Z-Y on her daughter's knuckles. When Green gives the assembled kids a pep talk before the show, he reminds them, "Tonight is not about you or me. It's about Satan." Of course, they cheer wildly.

Green's repartee with the older students--complete with references to smoking dope, shooting heroin, and losing one's virginity--may raise some eyebrows, but his candor and ability to relate to the kids clearly fuels their camaraderie. Unfortunately joining one community often means leaving another. One of Green's star students is Madi Diaz-Svalgard, a practicing Quaker who arrives in the program strumming three-chord Sheryl Crow songs and winds up holding her own with the Zappa band in Bad Doberan. Back in her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Madi hangs with a clique of fellow Quakers who've formed a rap group called the Friendly Gangstaz, but she begins dissing it after Green lampoons them in front of the other students. "You've let them take something you enjoy and ruin it," one of the guitar teachers at the school recalls pointing out to her.

With its encomiums to Green and its feel-good finale in Germany, Rock School sometimes threatens to succumb to Mad Hot Ballroom syndrome, a condition known to affect digital documentaries with mainstream crossover potential. But Argott weaves a darker thread into the movie with comments from Will O'Connor, a perceptive and articulate teen whose lackadaisical attitude and marginal bass playing make him the bane of Green's existence. As O'Connor explains early in the movie, for the first three years of his life he suffered from a medical condition that forced him to wear a neck brace and sleep sitting up ("like the Elephant Man," he says), and the illness has kept him back in school. He's attempted suicide three times, and he doubts that he'll see his 30th birthday. "If it wasn't for rock school and a few other things, I'd probably be dead," he says matter-of-factly. "And I'm barely alive now."

After a feature in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Green had instituted a "Will O'Connor award" for the student most likely to kill himself, O'Connor's parents threatened to sue Green and told their son that his teacher was an arrested adolescent with an unhealthy attraction to children. Green, a troubled teen in his own day, argues that O'Connor stopped retailing his suicide stories once he joined the school and began to bond with the other misfits that make up the student body--that, as Lou Reed once sang, his life was saved by rock 'n' roll. But by the end of the movie O'Connor, gently prompted by Green, has decided to drop out and move on. His choice is the saddest moment in the film, and also the most provocative, because O'Connor, with his razor-sharp irony and questioning nature, is the closest thing in the movie to a genuine rock hero. Going your own way is something you can't learn in school--not even rock school.

The Nomi Song

When: Daily

Where: Music Box, 3733 N. Southport

Price: $8.75

Info: 773-871-6604

Rock School

When: Daily

Where: Multiple venues

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