Not only does Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s Canadian produced documentary No Ordinary Man go to great lengths to reclaim the insidiously rewritten history of their subject, but it also answers an intriguing logistical question. How does one go about crafting a film around an icon whose legacy was essentially erased and never adequately documented in the first place?
That icon is jazz musician Billy Tipton, a pianist and vocalist who rose from the ranks of studio and accompanying musician to put out a few well regarded and influential albums of his own. Billy was a transman who lived his entire life in the closet, with his assigned birth sexuality only being disclosed at the time of his sudden death in 1989, a result of untreated ulcers. It came as a shock to his wife, Kitty and their adopted kids, but the press had more of a field day with this revelation than the family, turning Billy’s story into another example of emotional violence perpetrated against the trans community.
Yee (delivering her second great film of the year after The Rest of Us, which played the festival last year) and Joynt face an uphill battle in trying to encapsulate Tipton’s life in and out of the music industry. Not a lot of footage or photographs exist of Tipton performing, and with the exception of his son, Billy Tipton Jr., there aren’t many people left to tell his story with any degree of accuracy and without sensationalizing “the big reveal.” In between whatever historical grounds the filmmakers can form through sit down interviews with scholars of both music and trans-history (and some truly gut-wrenching phone call recordings between Kitty and Billy’s first biographer, Diane Middlebrook), Yee and Joynt stage a casting call for transmen of various shapes, sizes, and racial identities to come in and “read for the part” of Billy, creating a pastiche of theories as to how seminal moments in the subject’s life might’ve played out. Through the linking of these two threads, the past and present meet with a great deal of power, brilliantly underlining the need for transpeople to control their own stories and histories.
No Ordinary Man is a vital piece of history told objectively and with a great deal of passion from everyone involved. Not only a plea for the importance of acknowledging representation throughout history, No Ordinary Man is a fascinating logical problem that the filmmakers have to work around, succeeding – much like Billy – against all odds.
No Ordinary Man screens once again during TIFF 2020 at West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place on Monday, September 14 at 9:00 pm.