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Review: ‘No Ordinary Man’ is a contemplation of transmasculine jazz musician Billy Tipton

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

It’s amazing what a rich filmic and emotional experience has been created by co-directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt in their documentary “No Ordinary Man,” given how little audio-visual material, data and certainty was left behind about their subject: transmasculine jazz musician Billy Tipton, who died in 1989 at age 74.

Tipton was assigned female at birth but presented as a man from age 19, when he began looking for work in the male-dominated field of jazz music. (It’s roundly debunked here that he tried passing as male to gain employment in a kind of reverse “Tootsie” scenario). He lived as a man for the next 50 or so years, achieved moderate success as a performer and bandleader in the 1940s and ‘50s, recorded two albums with his band, had five common-law wives — he adopted three sons with his last partner, Kitty Kelly — and successfully hid his birth-designated gender from, it seems, virtually everyone. That is until the truth was discovered by a coroner upon Tipton’s death.

It was a sensationalistic story for its time. This was well before the terms “trans man” and “trans woman” were in the lexicon, and there was significantly less understanding and acceptance of transgender people than there is today — though there’s still a long way to go.

Instead of exploring Tipton’s complex and fascinating tale in a typical cradle-to-grave bio-doc, Chin-Yee (she also co-wrote, with Amos Mac, and edited) and Joynt rely on a wonderfully compassionate and eloquent group of transgender voices to frame the musician’s life within the context of trans history and culture as well as against their own personal journeys.

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Through their words, actors Marquise Vilsón and Scott Turner Schofield, professors Susan Stryker and C. Riley Snorton, musicologist Stephan Pennington, author and screenwriter Thomas Page McBee, multimedia artist and TV producer Zackary Drucker, trans pioneer and activist Kate Bornstein and others help to reclaim Tipton as a trans icon, mitigate the mainstream media’s clumsy mishandling of Tipton’s story after his death and deconstruct his troubling 1999 biography “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton.” The misguided — and all-too-common— conflation of gender and sexuality is also crucially mentioned.

Still photos, audio bits of Tipton and his music (there was no moving image footage of him to be found) and clips from an array of thorny TV talk show appearances that Kelly and son Billy Tipton Jr. made after the musician’s death are woven in throughout. A recent interview with Tipton Jr. from his home in Spokane, Wash., in which he learns the importance of his father’s legacy for the trans community, is quite poignant.

But the doc’s most creative and intriguing element is its series of would-be auditions in which a talented selection of transmasculine actors attempt to portray Tipton at several key moments of his life. These interpretations bring a welcome visceral sense of the man that’s largely just conjectured.

As presented here, Tipton’s story can evoke more questions than answers. Among them: What was the emotional toll of living “stealth” for so long? Why are Tipton’s other sons not interviewed (and their faces blurred out in old photos)? It certainly leaves the door open for a companion documentary, or even a narrative biopic, to flesh out — and flush out — more of the facts.

As is, though, this is a compelling, often profound film, one that creatively surmounts its inherent limitations and shines a vital and heartfelt light on being transgender.

‘No Ordinary Man’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Starts July 16, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles


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