American jazz musician Billy Tipton started his career playing as part of a big band setup that played radio stations and in clubs. He worked his way up, touring the country, playing as part of an ensemble, as the bandleader, and even as part of a trio. Reportedly, Billy Tipton was a private person, an introvert by nature, but that didn’t stop him from marrying and adopting three children, creating a family rather than raising up his musical career. He cultivated an extraordinary legacy through his music, but all of it would be forgotten upon his death. What possible revelation could cause the general public to dismiss all of Billy’s contributions? The realization that Billy Tipton is transmasculine, a secret not even his wife or children knew. Rather than mourn the loss to the musical community or allow the Tipton family to process this news, the press threw the families’ lives and Billy’s under a microscope. In their documentary No Ordinary Man, directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt explore the co-opting of Billy’s life and the continued resonance of his passing.
The recent brouhaha surrounding the Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner requires a reminder that documentaries are, by and large, just as subject to bias as fictional works. The director, the editor, the interviewees, all have their version of truth which is almost always confused for fact. What’s impressive about Chin-Yee and Joynt’s approach within No Ordinary Man is that they confront head-on the various versions of “truth” reported about Billy Tipton, while also mixing in perspectives from members of the trans community. In fact, all of the live on-camera interviewees, save for Billy Tipton, Jr., are from the trans community, casting a particularly spectacular light over the entire documentary. Rather than relying on traditional interviewees who might be separate from subject, each of the interviewees offers expert insight from their fields, as well as personal experience. Yes, some of these perspectives are anecdotal, but they are often presented exactly as such, thereby not diminishing the overall documentary. What does this mean? It means that the responses are often framed by the interviewees, especially the non-experts in a specific field, via their personal experience. So when actor Marquise Vilsón discusses the two moments when he came out, first as gay and then as trans, as well as when he discusses his life as an actor, he does so within the context of what it was like for him now versus what it might have been life for Billy. It is conjecture, there’s no disputing it, but there’s also a great deal of evidence presented that allows for this vein of discussion without bringing down the overall truth. It certainly does help that the majority of information about Billy come from experts or authors in the fields of sociology, history, and music. Ultimately, the end result is a documentary which informs on Billy’s life through the lens of modern experiences.
What makes No Ordinary Man particularly remarkable can be found within the words of musicologist Stephan Pennington. He points out late in the documentary that so many stories involving minority communities are centered on the white or cisgender experience. Almost always, stories like Coming Home (1978), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), or The Greatest Showman (2017), evoke the feeling that non-cisgendered, minority, trans, etc. are meant as background or support to the white cisgendered hero of the story, whether based on true events or not. What Chin-Yee and Joynt do is they place Billy’s story in the center (ok, this is normal) but the discussion of Billy’s life is presented through a completely differently lens. Rather than merely explore Billy’s life via music recording, public records, family photographs, and talking head interviews, Chin-Yee and Joynt include the observations and thoughts of members of the current trans community. At first, this seems strange as it initially seems to recenter the conversation except Billy is who each of these people filter their experience through. This enables No Ordinary Man to explore the notion that there was a trans community in existence long before recent years – as some might have you believe wasn’t the case – which means that there is also a culture and tradition for that community. Even as the documentary examines the manner in which Billy was publically outed and how this information was exploited by the tabloid and mainstream press, there remains respect on the lips of each interviewee. Not once is it discussed what Billy’s name was prior to transitioning using the tools of the era, nor is a pronoun out of place. Instead, Billy is presented not as a martyr but as a respected elder whose experience should not have been. While some aspects of life and medicine are safer today than in Billy’s time, there’s still a terrible risk to personal safety that often comes with the trans experience. Several of the interviewees offer the context of their own experience within the scope of Billy’s and it just rends your heart in the hearing.
The most evocative aspects of No Ordinary Man are the auditions that take place throughout. It’s not entirely explained if the auditions are specifically for the documentary or for a different project, but each one features a different transmasculine individual reading dialogue from various significant moments in Billy’s life. There’s no indication of where the dialogue comes from, but the context of each scene is laid out fairly plainly so that the audience at home understands the significance of the dialogue. While it would be easy to proclaim which of the performers I prefer, that is irrelevant to the significance of each audition sequence as they serve a dual purpose. Unlike the interview sequences, these auditions place the actor in the shoes of Billy, each one offering a different line reading due to their personal choices. This highlights how the circumstances Billy went through beginning around his late teens and until his death in 1989 still resonate today with members of his community. Time becomes a circle and that sense of loneliness one might feel having lived only their lives becomes shared. Each audition sequence becomes more powerful than the last, both for what the audience learns about Billy and how the scene impacts the actors in the moment. Bringing it back to Billy and his family, the way in which the interviewee stories from the trans community and Billy Tipton Jr. intersect is a powerful reminder that loss knows no end and that comfort can come from anywhere. Given what Chin-Yee and Joynt present as a reporting of character assassination, the whole of No Ordinary Man feels like a long overdue salve for Billy Jr. and anyone who’s felt lost, too.
At the start of this review a point was made about documentaries and the perspective they hold. No Ordinary Man is no different from others in the fact that Chin-Yee and Joynt clearly hold a position about Billy Tipton. Each interview, each newsreel, each recording, each photograph is used to place the audience into a different era and into the perspective of Billy Tipton to have them consider what it might be like to have the entire world question their ethics and do entirely eviscerate them post-mortem. What separates Chin-Yee and Joynt from other documentarians, however, is they don’t make their own voices heard regarding their position on the matter; rather, Chin-Yee and Joynt let the words of others speak for them about the pain and sadness of the storytellers’ respective journeys, as well as the warm and welcoming community that they have discovered. Or, as Stephan Pennington explains it, that there is a community you can belong to, it’s just been secreted away from public view. In this way, No Ordinary Man may just provide the encouragement for others to leave the shadows and step into the light. This may seem like a startling and surprising legacy at first, but that’s the reclaimed story of Billy Tipton and what he inspires.
In select theaters July 16th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official No Ordinary Man website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.