A fascinating deconstruction of history, culture and identity, “No Ordinary Man” raises many crucial questions — and answers them so thoughtfully — that it moves beyond entertainment into the realm of essential text. It belongs, equally, in theaters, streaming queues and classrooms.
Filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt begin with the story of mid-century jazz musician Billy Tipton, who seems to be an ideal candidate for a traditionally formatted biographical documentary. But their goal isn’t to tell one man’s story, even if that man was “born a woman,” to reference the exploitative approach of previous tellings of his life. Tipton’s secret was revealed after his death in 1989, when EMTs removed his clothing. No one, including four successive wives and three children, had any idea that he had been assigned female at birth.
As we see in impactful footage from breathless talk shows that refer to him as a “jazzy gender-bender,” the story after his death was that Tipton was an ambitious musician who presented as a man to break into a profession that wouldn’t accept women. And that “she” — as Tipton was consistently described — had immorally fooled fans and family members by living a deeply damaging lie.
Even as we watch cynically aggressive hosts and cruelly mocking guests ask Billy’s grieving wife and son how they’ve reacted to this apparent betrayal, it’s perfectly clear that the actual damage has been done by those outside the family: the media, biographers, neighbors and curiosity seekers. Times change, of course, and society evolves. But Chin-Yee and Joynt dig much deeper in their efforts to explore cultural gatekeeping, historical bias and the subjectivity of storytelling.
Though Tipton made two records as the leader of the Billy Tipton Trio, he didn’t leave much else of his own voice behind. The filmmakers found no archival video, diaries or even meaningful letters. But in the manner of gifted artists, they were inspired rather than inhibited by this considerable challenge. Lacking the usual tools most documentarians rely on, they turned the concept inside out: They wrote several scenes of Tipton’s life as if for a fictional film, invited prominent trans performers to audition for them and recorded the process.
All the actors break down the scenes in different ways, bringing their own interpretation to Tipton’s experience. Then Chin-Yee and Joynt give them the space to think through their reactions, considering how and why this story matters to them.
Between these scenes, we hear from a well-chosen range of scholars, activists and authors, who use Tipton’s biography as a starting point to address a wide span of notions about gender, sexuality, society and more. In a typical documentary, you’d call this group the talking heads. But the truth is, as this film’s creativity reminds us, most talking heads tell us very little. They often serve to fill space, providing mild anecdotes or anodyne praise to prove the subject deserves a movie in the first place.
The interviews in “No Ordinary Man,” though, introduce one new concept after another, each taking us down a different compelling path. Some experts contextualize Tipton himself. But many are more interested in what he represents: to them, to us, to others. Cultural theorist C. Riley Snorton points out that jazz is “a practice of improvisation … so it’s ripe for thinking through questions of embodiment.” Tufts professor Stephan Pennington, who offers one striking insight after another, ponders the underseen impact of historical erasure. Actor Scott Turner Schofield recalls how crucial Tipton’s story was to his own early sense of self, even while wryly noting that Tipton “didn’t consent to that visibility, which sucks.”
In fact, there are times when Tipton recedes just a bit too far into the background here. We don’t learn enough about his personal history, including the stories of four of his five common-law wives or two of his children. And one wishes he at least had a stronger presence on the soundtrack, which only features a few of his works and many more of contemporary indie artist Rich Aucoin. Chin-Yee and Joynt may not have had much to work with archivally, but Tipton feels, occasionally, less like a cipher than a ghost.
He’s represented primarily by his son, Billy Tipton Jr., who has aged from a confused young man in the early clips to a baffled older man today. Crucially, though, his bewilderment comes not from his father’s “secret,” but from everyone’s reaction to it. Tipton Jr has said from the start, openly and simply, that he loved his dad for who he was. His stunned realization that he is no longer required to defend that love is one of the most moving moments in a film that is built on them.
“No Ordinary Man” opens in select U.S. theaters on July 16.