Sunday 21 March 2021

NO ORDINARY MAN - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Through interviews with his son and members of today's trans community, this new documentary tells the remarkable story of Billy Tipton, a successful jazz musician in the 1930s who released a number of albums, raised a family and was then revealed to the world to be a trans man after his death.

The story of Billy Tipton is so incredible that he has become a trans icon, namely for his ability to forge a successful music career that spanned decades without anyone knowing of his trans status until his death in 1989. In a tale of revelation that has now become the stuff of legend - and that also served as tabloid fodder in the years after - when Billy died at the age of 74 in his adopted son Billy Jr's arms, it was the attending EMT who alerted the family to the truth whilst trying to resuscitate him. With no footage and only a handful of photos available of Billy's early days on the jazz club circuit, in order to fill in moments from his life directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt and co-writer Amos Mac incorporate a series of auditions from trans actors to play the part of Billy Tipton for the film.

Working from what information is available and with the involvement of Billy Jr, No Ordinary Man is a respectful telling of Billy Snr's story that acknowledges that due to the great efforts he went to to keep his "secret", the story of his gender identity is one that he most likely never wanted revealing. However, as is shown via the shock tabloid headlines, clips from 90s talk shows (with hard to watch, horrifically outdated opinions and weaponised misgendering on them) and excerpts from the biography sanctioned by ex-wife Kitty that couldn't believe she was unaware of the truth and that hung on the idea Billy was only posing as a man to further his music career, once the story was out, there was no way of putting the genie back in the bottle. It's not the intention of No Ordinary Man to mimic this salacious, shock factor style of storytelling, but instead to use Billy's story as a jumping off point to tell the wider story of transgender/trans-masculine people, with numerous well-educated talking heads from members of the trans community that confront the general public's fascination with trans stories and the notion that trans-people are "liars", trying to trick them.
Analysing the misguided presumption that trans-people are putting on a performance, the inclusion of the auditions is fascinating, allowing a group of male trans actors (there is no limitations put on age or race) to embody Billy whilst also dissecting the scenes from their own point of view. It's these different voices that bring Billy to life on screen, linked by their own experiences of life as trans men to offer a possible glimpse of why Billy chose to never reveal that side of their life to those closest to him. With no historical record, it's a bold inclusion to use dramatic scenes based on interactions Billy might have had, but in the context of the film it works in giving Billy more of a dialogue in his own story, albeit scripted.

In the assembled interviews there's a huge amount of important contributions from voices such as actor Marquise Vilson (who also appeared in last year's Flare favourite, Disclosure), Stephan Pennington, Susan Stryker and Zackary Drucker, but in order to tell Billy's story the film knows that its key interviewee is Billy Jr, who is visited in his home to tell recollections of his father and how his life has been impacted since. Notably, Billy's two other adopted sons do not appear, going as far as having their faces blurred out of old photographs, having reacted negatively to the notoriety their father inadvertently brought them in his death. But Billy Jr is an engaging presence, largely unaware of how important his father is to the trans community.
The details of Billy Tipton's life shouldn't need to be told but also shouldn't be erased, and the educational and entertaining No Ordinary Man provides its audience with a way to engage with his legend and be respectful of the privacy of a group of often maligned and misjudged people. Despite the unavoidable shock value of his death, Chin-Yee and Joynt's film goes some way to tell why Billy's story is so important to the trans community, and make sure his legacy is a positive one.


No Ordinary Man is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

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