Nick Name and the Normals


Howie Skora

Kent James (Nick Name), Tony Jardine, Ben Morris, Anthony Pontrello, Rachel Rattner

Unrated, 75 minutes


Angry Young Queer
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, July 2008


Pop culture would have us believe that all gay male singers are showtune divas, in musical theatre, or the frontmen of dance/techno bands. While this is mostly true, there are exceptions. Not many, but a few... like Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Elton John once rocked hard, but now he writes Broadway musicals. To quote one of my favorite prog-rock bands, Rush, I like to "deviate from the norm," and wouldn't you like to, just once, forget the glitter and march to the beat of a queer punk rocker for a change?

Meet Nick Name, and his back-up band, The Normals. He is the subject of the 2005 documentary, Nick Name and the Normals, directed by Howie Skora. If Henry Rollins were gay, he would be Nick Name. Cross Sid Vicious with Jim Morrison and you're on the right track. Nick Name was the stage name of Kent James, a former Mormon missionary turned country singer who didn't want to play "straight" in Nashville so he shaved his head, moved to L.A., and adopted a punk persona. As frontman for The Normals, he combined hard-driving punk rock with performance art. His shows were deliberately confrontational; on stage he rubbed his queerness in the faces of the audience with spite and glee.

Nick Name and the Normals is an uneven, yet fascinating, documentary about an artist on the edge. Director Skora followed the band for a year, in much the same way that the Maysles Brothers did with The Rolling Stones when they filmed Gimme Shelter in 1969. I am not suggesting that Skora's movie is in the same league with that monumental documentary but there are similarities. His film mixes concert footage, Nick's confessional rants, and interviews with his frustrated manager, his bandmates, former bandmates, and his fans. As any good documentary should, it presents all sides of the story. This is, by no means, a love letter to Nick and this is a good thing. We're encouraged to decide for ourselves if we are watching an angry visionary or a complete jerk who just needs to have his mouth washed out with soap.

One's musical tastes will probably be a major factor in a viewer's reaction to the film's subject. I freely admit that I have a soft spot for queer punk rockers. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of my favorite films and I love the music that Stephen Trask wrote for it. But whereas Hedwig was androgynous, Nick Name is testosterone incarnate. He shaves his head, he wears a mohawk, he struts his muscular and hairy physique like a rooster on the stage. Okay, he's a little extreme but I found that refreshing. I mean, how can you not love a song with a title like "I Fucked Your Boyfriend?"

On stage, the man is electrifying; you can't take your eyes off of him. But, at the same time, disturbing is also an apt description. "I'm angry!" he screams at a Pride picnic during the opening montage. "I was a fuckin' Mormon in Utah! You try that on for size!" To listen to his bandmates, Nick is a man on a mission, filled with rage. Most viewers will react initially with laughter. Featuring concert snippets and some of the most annoying talking heads I have ever seen in a documentary, the film's first moments set a comedic, almost farcical, tone. This mood, however, is soon dispelled.
A harrowing second act, entitled "Demons," begins with Nick talking about his Mormon past and the 18 months he spent as a missionary in Argentina where "the more [he] preached, the less [he] believed." He recalls a minister who told him he has a demon inside. Perhaps he does. Look at the performance footage from the Las Vegas Fetish and Fantasy Halloween Ball where Nick has a meltdown onstage comparable to the one Jim Morrison suffered during The Doors' famous Miami gig. The mostly straight audience walks out in droves. While his band chants the F word, Nick paces the stage like a tiger in a cage and rants to the remaining crowd: "Gay people are going to fuckin' rise up and kick your asses! We all fuckin' work out at the gym! We're all fuckin' pissed off! We hate you! We're fuckin' sick of your shit!"
In the backstage footage that follows, Nick's face is almost pressed against the camera lens and water drips from his mouth. "Punk!" he screams, with an almost maniacal smile, "It aint pretty!" He is wired and looks almost insane. "I was the nicest guy once," he says as he cools down, and then wonders if he is going to get beat up when he gets outside. One of the other musicians remarks that this was their best show ever.
His star-struck bandmembers, who are straight by the way, speak of him as a visionary genius. When asked if they feel threatened when he sings about kicking straight people's asses, one replies that they are "gay by proxy." But deliberate shock tactics, a longtime staple on the performance art circuit, are often a substitute for talent. It's easy to be a provocateur. Yet there is something dangerous about him and that is part of the allure. Nick's nasty lyrics, tongue planted firmly in cheek, have the power to inflame. The verse, "I fucked your boyfriend / He squealed like a pig," is a direct allusion to the male rape scene in Deliverance and he is deliberately mocking conventional roles of manhood while provoking the whole straight male hierarchy. Still, is all this hyper-masculinity just a mask? Is he really that pissed off? And should we be bothered when he, himself, exhibits the same homophobia that he protests when he fingers the dance music industry as a "bunch of flakey sissy pussies?"
But just when one wants to dismiss him, another side of the entertainer emerges. In a section entitled "Vulnerability," members of his previous band accuse of Nick of not being able to accommodate more than one emotion when he insists that he isn't the same man who once sang with them. They set out to prove that his macho trappings are a mask, to hide how vulnerable he is, by playing one of Nick's old songs as Kent James. It is a song he clearly does not want to hear; a stark and soulful solo acoustic guitar ballad in which a hustler lays bare his soul. As much as I responded to his punk rants, "Paperback Rodeo" jolted me with its raw emotion; it is one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. The chorus, "My sex is for sale / For sale. / You can't buy my love" produces chills. Throughout the song, Nick sits with his head bowed, unable to look at his former bandmates; undoubtedly they have struck a nerve. It is fitting that this song is reprised during the end credits rather than one of his rockers like "Who's Your Daddy?"
It is a compelling portrait of a complicated man. But Nick Name and the Normals is not Gimme Shelter, and director Skora is not Albert Maysles. As I remarked earlier, this is a very uneven documentary. Skora's camera captures some remarkable footage but at other times it looks like the work of a first year film student. The brilliant and the clumsy co-exist; sometimes in the same scene. The most arresting footage is Nick's Las Vegas meltdown, captured in one long take where the camera never leaves the performer. But, during most of the other concert scenes, Skora insists on showing everything but the artist, especially at Pride events. Like an annoying MTV doc, there is too much jerky camerawork and flashing pans and faces thrust into the lens, not to mention talking heads who like to act stupid for the camera.

But the film's strengths make you forget the weaker stretches. Highlights include a fan, who could be Nick's clone, worshipping him as the most masculine man in gay culture. A funny scene beautifully captures two sides of the gay world when the plug is pulled on Nick's show at the Ventura Pride Picnic. The organizers explain that they were aiming for a "family vibe" (images of Nick strutting on stage were juxtaposed with families and playgrounds) and a band member asks "So why did you hire Nick?"A montage of his meltdowns was accompanied by noir-ish music, very similar to the score of Blade Runner, and it changed the mood from glad to sadness.

I also liked that the director is often flip about his subject. By his very nature, Nick often invites parody. When he laments about how he didn't connect with the mostly straight audience in Vegas, Skora inserts a title card that says "To be fair..." and then a second card that reads: "...Some of the straight people MAY have left because Nick told them to fuck off and that he was going to kick their asses."

There is much to admire in Nick Name and the Normals but it doesn't reach its full potential. It dispels the myth that gay men can't rock and offers much food for thought about masculinity issues but, at the end I was still hungry. More about Nick's private life (the dynamics of his relationship with lover Pablo are sketchy at best) and a less-abrupt ending would have gone a long way. Still, this is a warts and all portrait of the artist and this should be the aim of any documentary. Since making the film, Nick Name has retired his angry young queer persona and is performing again under his real name, Kent James.

Click embedded video below to see the video for "I Fucked Your Boyfriend"


Nick Name also appears in

Ken James' Official Site
If the above video doesn't work,
you can find it, and others, here: