Documentaries That Inspire

In my experience, inspiration can come from or go towards a huge variety of things. Inspiration can come from a pretty tableau of the night sky, a melody heard on the train platform, the life story of someone that matters to you, or a particularly good plate of pasta. You can be inspired to eat healthier, love yourself more, spend more time doing what you enjoy or you can be inspired creatively. For example that plate of pasta may urge you to compose a symphony on the comeliness of carbs or perfectly capture that buttery sheen in a picture. This collection of mockumentaries and documentaries about people and events that have inspired me is, unfortunately, sans bready delicacies but filled with a rich import of life lessons. Whether from artists, opera singers, or drag queens there is always something to be learned, and sometimes film is the perfect medium to highlight the important parts.

1. The Nomi Song

The Nomi Song is a documentary about the life and times of Klaus Nomi, a new wave opera singer who was born in Bavaria and later moved to NYC. It was released in 2004, 21 years after Klaus Nomi’s death. Nomi’s impact as an underground cultural phenomenon was so significant that he was considered relevant over two decades after his death. His relevancy is partly based in novelty; Klaus Nomi by all accounts was a weird guy. He went on stage in a white powdered face with black lipstick and proceeded to sing opera in the late 70's and early 80's. His performances sound like an SNL skit, but the way he sung could move mountains. His crazy surrealist vocals had no place in the opera world of the time and certainly didn't fit in with any music being made in the 70’s, so he created his own world for them: “Nomiland”. In Nomiland, opera could be sung with a new wave band, creating some fusion of Bronski Beat and The Barber of Seville. He built a music genre around himself, and it is so specific to him that no artist has ever tried to replicate it. In addition to having a tailor-made musical style, Klaus Nomi had a tailor-made persona. According to people who knew him, he moved differently from others both on and off stage. The way he preformed was like something from a dream but so was any conversation with him. His movements and his expressions made him like something from Mars. The Nomi Song sheds light on how the people around Klaus viewed him. The film mainly consists of interviews of those closest to him with interspersed performance videos. The combination of the two really gives the you a full perspective. It shows you that who Klaus Nomi was on stage was not an act. Whether he was at the grocery store talking to small children or singing opera in an auditorium packed with fans, Klaus Nomi was a self-made alien. That’s what I truly admire about him. He made himself into exactly what he wanted to be. He created a character, a space alien, out of Klaus Sperber from Germany. He created living, breathing art out of his own flesh and blood. It’s amazing to think that I can do the same. I can pour my own life force into my own mold and I can become anything. If Klaus Sperber could, then so can anyone. I am a work of art, and I am malleable as long as I believe I am, and so is everyone else! Klaus Nomi showed me the potential that a person can have to transcend and be celestial. Watch The Nomi Song on Youtube.

2. Wigstock: The Movie

Wigstock is a true observer documentary. There isn’t some old British man doing a voiceover or close ups of people’s childhood homes; it's just the real life happenings of Wigstock, 1995. According to Lady Bunny, one of the most notorious drag queens of all time, Wigstock was created when she and a few other drunk queens stumbled out of the Pyramid Club in 1984 and decided to give a performance in the park. After that, the festival grew and grew until it was a yearly enclave of drag culture in the middle of New York City. It isn’t hard to find inspiration in between the musical numbers and interviews of Wigstock: The Movie. When the camera pans out on the audience it finds a wide range of people. Elderly ladies who live in the neighborhood, frat boys, sweet midwestern tourists, and 7 foot tall drag queens all mingle while watching the queer icons of New York City take over the stage. At a time when queer people were pariahs, the Wigstock festival brought the amazing art and culture of the community into the spotlight. It was one of the bravest actions I’ve ever heard of. The stories of the people in attendance, the familial bonds displayed and the love among the crowd is pure, beautiful, and resonating. It reaches out from the screen and grabs you so that when 1995 Rupaul gets up on stage and says “everybody say 'love'”, you feel yourself mouthing it too. Watch Wigstock: The Movie on YouTube.

3. Basquiat

The 1996 mockumentary Basquiat is a dreamlike and appreciative interpretation of the life and times of the multifaceted artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The film mainly focuses on his career, specifically his relationship with Andy Warhol. However, I’ve chosen to ignore all this and instead appreciate Basquiat for its depiction of Jean-Michel’s different artistic periods. It traces his path from graffiti to contemporary art, neo-expressionism and primitivism. There are many admirable aspects of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example his being credited as the first black artist in the main stream, but the piece of Jean-Michel that inspires me as a creative is his ability to change completely and yet still stay the same. Any work of his reaches off of the canvas, or the dress, or whatever he painted it on, and grabs you with raw emotion. His art screams his name louder than his trademark copyright symbol ever could. He kept his core, his emotion, as a constant in his art. As he grew as a person, Jean-Michel Basquiat held on to what was most important about him and incorporated it into different facets of his life. This extraordinary feat of personal strength inspires me not only to stay true to myself, but also to bring myself into all that I do. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ability to transform reminds me that I should always continue to grow, and always do so authentically. 

4. Party Monster

There are two versions of the movie Party Monster: a 1998 version with the people who actually took part in the events of clubland 1996, and a 2003 mockumentary made with Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green. The earlier documentary version can be somewhat disturbing, so I would recommend the later version. I wouldn’t quite classify Party Monster as a movie about people I admire, considering all the main characters participated in the doing and coverup of a depraved murder. I am more inspired by the event that triggered the murder: the club kid movement. Characterized by outlandish and artful clothing, makeup, and personas (and later by heavy drug use and insanity), the club kid counter-culture hasn’t been documented much. That’s why I unfortunately had to stoop to using films about the low point and ultimate end of the club kids in order to demonstrate the movement's creative power. It was powerful in that stars were born out of the pits of the 90’s clubs in New York City. Self made people arose from a youth movement. The club kids tore through the rigid social structures of night life and began a universe devoid of ball-gowns and filled with duct tape, face paint, and sequins. The club kids created something that lives and breathes even now though interpretations in art and fashion. This group of riff-raff, this band of wily street children, made a world in which they could fit in. They made a world so fun that the mainstream wanted in, that the mainstream still wants in. This youth-run topsy-turvey world inspires me and pushes me to make my own spaces, be it in my head, in my room or in my favorite store. No matter how weird my world is, it's fabulous and someday someone will want in.

text: ariela rosenzweig
visuals: trinity university, misha erwitt, kent pell, keda albano; collage by ariela rosenzweig
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