As a historically marginalized group, LGBTQ people must excavate the past in order to find evidence of their existence. But when flying under the radar is a means of survival in a society determined to erase you, stories of queer life are often difficult to find. Every once in awhile, a long lost family member is hiding in plain sight — but it is up to us to reach out and claim them as our own. In the case of Billy Tipton, a successful American jazz musician active from the mid-1930s to ’50s, a familiar tune echoes across decades. Approaching Tipton’s story with the free hand of an improvised jazz set, “No Ordinary Man” is an elegant riff on a classic progression that arrives at something transcendent.
Directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, “No Ordinary Man” employs a feast of trans masculine performers to embody and engage with Tipton’s story. Working from a narrative script to a film that may never see the light of day, the filmmakers audition various actors for the role of Billy Tipton. Probing deeply into Tipton’s imagined emotional state the way only actors can, each performer brings their own insights to the fictionalized beats of his life, relating their own experiences in moving and unique ways. In a fascinating sleight of hand, the film transforms a fairly routine part of the acting process into a profound and intimate way to connect across time with a fellow gender transgressor.
This meta-filmmaking technique helps “No Ordinary Man” avoid the staid format of the conventional documentary-as-biography. It may also be a creative way around a dearth of footage of Tipton, though recordings of his music feature extensively, as well as a few audio recordings of his masculine-sounding voice. His life is remarkable enough to yield a more straightforward biopic, but “No Ordinary Man” has higher artistic aims.
Raised in Kansas City, Tipton began his career as a radio bandleader in 1936 before spending the next 15 years touring the midwest and Pacific Northwest, eventually sharing bills with jazz titans The Ink Spots, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Billy Eckstine. In 1951, he established the Billy Tipton Trio, which released two albums of standards through independent label Tops Records in 1957. Shortly thereafter, Tipton was offered a chance to open for Liberace, but he turned it down and returned to Spokane, Washington to start a family.
In a bittersweet turn of events, Tipton’s transgender identity would have remained secret if not for the unfortunate and painful “gender reveal” brought about by his death in 1989 at the age of 74. Tipton’s death became immediate tabloid fodder, with the narrative asserting that he lied about his gender to his family. The film’s only archival footage is the tedious daytime talk show appearances his son and widow had to endure in the wake of his posthumous outing. The scenes are quite remarkable; both as a record of the media’s astonishing insensitivity and a painful archive of Billy Jr.’s very public grief.
The filmmakers managed to track down Billy Jr., now middle-aged and much changed from the innocent string bean once offered a tissue by tabloid talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael. It’s moving to hear Billy Jr. reflect on the difficulty of that time; clearly the interviewer behind the camera put him at ease. One of the film’s most poignant moments arrives after his sweet assertion that “it kinda blows me away that after all these years anybody even remembers him.” Speaking off camera, Joynt says his father is an inspiration and a hero to many transgender men, including him. One furrowed brow raised, Billy Jr. stumbles briefly in surprise, but doesn’t make a big deal of Joynt’s reveal. In this rare case, Joynt’s outing himself is an act of great care.
Chin-Yee and Joynt elevate the talking heads portion of the film by shooting the interviews in a classic nightclub. The shrewd and informative subjects — all trans — are framed brightly amidst a sultry backdrop of red leather booths and barstools. The film offers an impressive array of academics and artists; Susan Stryker, C. Riley Norton, Zackary Drucker, Amos Mac, Stephan Pennington, and Marquise Vilson all provide engaging critical insights. As in the equally formative “Disclosure: Trans Lives Onscreen,” it feels both radical and natural to see a film populated only by trans people.
When the activist and author Jamison Green visits Billy Jr. at home, both men are thrilled to discover Green wearing a tweed newsboy cap almost identical to one Tipton owned. It’s a safe bet half the trans guys watching have a similar hat somewhere in their closet, except they don’t have to hide anymore. It’s a subtle reminder that, as Green tells Billy Jr., “Hardly anybody is ever truly alone in this world.”
“No Ordinary Man” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.