BFI Flare 2021: No Ordinary Man Review
One of the chief values of the BFI's Flare festival is in self-education: doing better to understand our peers and gain new perspectives on their lived experience. It’s always enlightening, for this writer at least, to explore a new angle on the present day: in the case of this excellent new film, it's a past where the language to describe trans identity simply didn’t exist. No Ordinary Man, a sensitive and vital documentary about a story from the recent past, brings our current and fractious ‘debate’ around trans lives into sharp relief.
Billy Tipton was a jazz musician who made a good living from touring the states with a band, and eventually became acclaimed enough to release two studio albums in the 1950s, two decades into his career. When Tipton passed away in 1989 after a long and accomplished life, his family and friends - and the news media at the time - were stunned to learn of his female birth sex.
This film traces Tipton’s life, meeting jazz luminaries of the day and achieving greater and greater fame, while keeping his secret from his peers and even from the women he loved. Framing the story in the present day, the film uses an interesting framing device, as a group of young trans guys ‘audition’ for the role of Billy Tipton in an imaginary movie. By gesturing toward the form of a myth making Hollywood biopic, No Ordinary Man emphasises the necessity of heroes in communities, particularly those lacking in visibility within the media and arts. The tone of reverence in how the film discusses Tipton’s life is far from accidental. “History matters”, as one interviewee puts in, and using the past to understand the present is crucial.
Amos Mac, founder of the magazine Original Plumbing, relays the story of the ‘reveal’: how, upon Tipton’s death following his retirement, his family and even his biographer were taken aback (a phone call from the time made by Diane Middlebrook, who was writing a book on Tipton, was miraculously preserved and plays out here).
The film consciously acknowledges, but pays little heed, to the tabloid sensation that quickly erupted. Through archive clips pulled mostly from daytime TV, we see how the story became sensationalist fodder for talk shows, with all the sensitivity you might expect given the 30 years that have elapsed since (naturally Oprah Winfrey, appearing briefly here, seems quite empathetic. Others misgender Tipton and frame his story as one of deception). But it’s the multitude of trans voices here who are given the platform to talk about the importance of Tipton’s life - it’s their story.
It’s devastatingly moving when Tipton’s adopted son, Billy Jr, learns from his interviewer just how much his father’s story means to the trans community. The family’s full acceptance of their patriarch is one of the more interesting threads which directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt follow.
While I would have loved to hear more of Tipton’s music, the film does give us an impression of his sound. The academic C. Riley Snorton suggests a fascinating link between the art of jazz improvisation and the performance of gender, and it’s interesting to imagine that Tipton would have been practicing and developing both when he would perform on stage.
Speaking of those venues, No Ordinary Man’s talking head sequences seem to have been filmed in the kind of jazz clubs which Tipton would have frequented. There’s a smoky, wood-panelled vibe that complements the film perfectly, and photographs from Tipton’s life are presented as tableaus featuring ephemera from the time like whisky tumblers and hair product. It just works, and in successfully conveying a feeling as much as the facts, the film puts many other documentaries to shame.
Fascinating anecdotes from Tipton’s life on the road fill in the gap, and evoke the time in which he lived, doing better than any archival footage could: we learn that many of Tipton’s peers acknowledged his birth sex, but simply thought he was a woman trying to get work. The cover of one of his albums, which we see here, features a smiling Billy being swooned over by two beautiful women: it’s a rich image.
Towards the documentary's end, there’s a moving sequence in which the interviewees relate what they would ask Billy if they had the opportunity. It’s joyful and moving, and Chin-Yee’s slow and meditative editing allows us to sit with these emotional stories. Through a sincere interest in the testimony of those who follow in his footsteps, No Ordinary Man pays tribute to a man who was just that - a musician, a father and a trailblazer.