VIFF review: No Ordinary Man, about jazz musician and trans icon Billy Tipton, packs an emotional wallop

This documentary is as much about the present as it is the past

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      No Ordinary Man (Canada) 80 min. Streaming online at the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival from September 24 to October 7 at VIFF Connect

      There’s a lot of talk about the importance of representation on screen, but No Ordinary Man sets out to vividly capture the emotional impact of recognizing aspects of one’s own story in the life of another.

      Directed by Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee, the documentary profiles Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician active from the '30s to the '70s who was outed as a trans man upon his death in 1989. Tipton’s story quickly became a prurient tabloid fixture. His widow and adopted children, previously unaware their loved one was trans, were grilled about intimate family details on daytime TV.

      He also became a cult figure among trans and queer people. No Ordinary Man covers the main biographical points of his life—though his music gets short shrift—with help from archival footage, but mainly trans historians and Tipton admirers including Marquise Vilsón, Susan Stryker, C.Riley Snorton, and Thomas Page McBee.

      Although Tipton’s life has been documented—thoroughly at times, but often insensitively—his voice has been largely absent. To suggest what it might’ve been like to be closeted and trans in decades past, writer Amos Mac and the directors hold auditions with trans actors for re-enactments. Not unlike Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet or Robert Greene’s Bisbee '17, the filmmakers chronicle the recreation process in order to tease out greater emotional truths—but also material realities that persist.

      The scenes of the actors discussing what resonated are poignant and telling. It’s an increasingly familiar, yet effective documentary conceit that frequently packs an emotional wallop. In one of the most gut-wrenching sequences, we see Billy Tipton Jr. describing his father’s death to talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael. Not only did Tipton’s death lead to the realization that Tipton was trans, but that the medical condition that took his life went untreated because he did not see a doctor—likely for fear of discrimination.

      These kinds of overlapping realizations create a complex portrait while making No Ordinary Man as much about the present as it is about the past. The film ultimately builds to a moving and surprising climax in which the empathetic trans views of Tipton are finally able to eclipse the parochial tabloid tale.