Friday, 29 July 2016

AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY review

Screened at last month's Sundance London Film Festival and now on general release, who was the real JT LeRoy? 


When I attended a screening of Author: The JT LeRoy Story at this year’s Sundance London Film Festival, a question was asked by one of the organisers before the film. “By a show of hands, how many of you know the JT LeRoy story?” There was a smattering of hands and even a whoop of fan appreciation in the audience. I was in attendance due to the positive buzz the film had received, but I will freely admit that, apart from being the writer of a film starring Asia Argento in the mid 2000s, I knew next to nothing about him. 100 minutes later, I knew who the real JT LeRoy was.

In the early 2000s, JT LeRoy became a major literary splash with the release of Sarah and The Heart of Deceitful Above All Things, two supposedly autobiographical novels that depicted a transgendered teen suffering a life of abuse, child prostitution and mistreatment at the hands of his mother. At first something of a reclusive figure, JT soon crossed over into popular culture by hanging out with celebrities such as Billy Corgan and Courtney Love at fashion shows, receiving industry advice from famous rock stars (aka "the Bono talk") and striking up a friendship with Asia Argento, the director and star of the film adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. 

Except, amid all the madness surrounding this very sudden leap to stardom, no one noticed that JT LeRoy was not who he said he was. He was in fact she. Laura Albert, a bored housewife with a history of adopting other personas was the real JT. Or at the very least, the JT who was putting pen to paper. Jeremiah Terminator had started out as a device she had used to create stories, sometimes written and sometimes spoken over the phone to a therapist or helpline. This exciting new literary voice with a unique viewpoint caused quite a storm, and when Albert had found her creation in high demand, together with her sister in law Savannah Knoop they created a physical presence for her nom de plume that could attend book readings and parties and give life to JT. But was it designed to be a hoax, a scam, or merely artistic license?

Director Jeff Feuerzeig, who previously studied the limitless potential of artistic expression with the also excellent The Devil and Daniel Johnston, chooses to jump back and forth in the lifetime of JT, in a manner that is befitting of the "wait a minute, what?" nature of the whole bizarre tale. The telling of JT's story is aided by the use of hours and hours of audio tapes Albert surreptitiously recorded of her phone conversations with therapist Dr Owens, as well as the famous admirers JT began to accrue.

As is evident from Albert's creation of a secondary persona of Speedie (a tag along member of JT's entourage with a ridiculously fake British accent), this is a story about the trappings of fame. She wanted her time in the spotlight and was increasingly jealous of her sister in law's fun being the physical manifestation of JT, so it is fitting that this documentary finally gives her a platform where she can express herself, as herself. Given free reign to wax lyrical about her creation and defend her actions, she points out that "the book says fiction. The rest is extra!".

Albert is front and centre the star of this film, and is candid about the necessity for her to create JT as an outlet when she couldn't express her thoughts by herself, and defensive about the criticisms she faced as the facade started to slip and the story blew wide open. As we hear audio excerpts from a rash of famous voices unsure of whether they are talking to Laura or Savannah, you have to question whether they really bought into the person or the persona.

With echoes of Exit Through the Gift Shop in its depiction of fame, perhaps the most important question it will leave you with is, what is fiction and what is non-fiction, and is there space to exist in between? Unquestionably one of the most enthralling and thought provoking films of the year, Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a fascinating doc that raises many timely questions about identity, gender fluidity and the cult of celebrity.

Verdict
4/5

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