Review: “No Ordinary Man” reclaims the story of Billy Tipton

Review: "No Ordinary Man" reclaims Billy Tipton's story

Directors Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Lee offer a glimpse at the life and legacy of famed jazz musician and transgender icon Billy Tipton.
Published: September 27, 2021 | Updated: September 30th, 2021 at 7:53 pm

Trailer of "No Ordinary Man"

No Ordinary Man, directed by Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Lee, is no ordinary documentary. The film challenged documentary conventions to simultaneously offer a peek into jazz musician and transgender icon Billy Tipton and an authentic, timely discussion of the transgender experience.

“The film is at once about Billy Tipton and also not at all,” Joynt said in a Q&A sponsored by Syracuse University’s Human Rights Film Festival, which hosted the screening.

That’s partly because no moving footage of Tipton exists. The audience barely sees Tipton in the film, save for photographs shared by his son, Billy Tipton, Jr. However, this doesn’t completely diminish Tipton’s presence because of Joynt and Chin-Lee’s attention to the community Tipton helped inspire.

Biographical documentaries tend to have the same ingredients: interviews with experts, reenactments and archival footage. Without archival footage of Tipton, the directors leaned into their experts and reenactments to transcend biography and present a pressing, current conversation.

 

The duo challenged what defines an expert. Excluding Tipton, Jr., every person interviewed was from the transgender community, and not all were traditional scholars. Their personal relationships to the subject matter brought resonance to the film and connected Tipton’s legacy to the present day.

Also, choosing Tipton, Jr. as the only expert with a direct connection to Tipton allowed Tipton, Jr. a chance to reframe the story he spent most of his life telling. This time, Tipton, Jr. wasn’t defending his dad against transphobia, as seen in archival footage of his and his mother’s interviews after his father’s death and subsequent outing. Now, Tipton, Jr. was sharing the story of his dad and receiving support from an understanding community.

Some of the experts also participated in the reenactments. We see key moments of Tipton’s life, such as his first gig, recreated through transgender actors auditioning for a fictitious Billy Tipton biopic.

These recreations become the film’s strength because they mesh expert insight with the audience’s only glimpses at Tipton’s life. The diverse group not only embodies Tipton’s life but also their own. They perform in a typical audition setting: empty room, blank walls and no one but the actor visible. Without the lush nightclub setting of the film’s interviews or period costuming, the actors were left to evoke Tipton solo. Regardless of age or race, they summon an understanding of Tipton.

 

Marquise Vilsón in
Marquise Vilsón in "No Ordinary Man."

One striking scene occurred with actor Marquise Vilsón. Vilsón asked if he should respond with panic to the cue line, “I heard a rumor about you.” The line resurfaced a visceral memory for Vilsón: the fear of someone outing him. It was a read Joynt and Chin-Lee hadn’t considered, and their conversation enriched the scene’s meaning.

At times, Tipton felt like a shadow. With so little known about the private musician, and no historical footage of Tipton, it was inevitable the film became a collection of inspirations and postulations about the man behind the legend. Scoring the film with Tipton’s music, along with Rich Aucoin, helped thread a Tipton throughline, but it was difficult to not crave more about Tipton.

No Ordinary Man may not have presented a complete story of Tipton’s private life. Instead, it did something greater. It allowed a community to gather, reclaim and celebrate the narrative of a legendary musician, father and transgender hero.

No Ordinary Man is available to rent or own on Apple TV+, Google Play Videos and Vudu.

Avatar for Katherine Kiessling

is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program and the Social Media Director for The NewsHouse.