By Nadia Dalimonte
Marquise Vilsón in No Ordinary Man (2020)
No Ordinary Man is a powerful documentary about the story of jazz musician and trans icon Billy Tipton. His legacy is told lovingly through the varying perspectives of artists and activists. With an incredibly thoughtful approach, filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt connect Tipton’s story to the people who followed in his footsteps.
The trans masculine perspectives give this documentary so much more weight, as it’s not only about Tipton’s life but also the inspiration he left behind. The filmmakers avoid formulaic biography structure, giving a voice to multiple lenses and narratives that challenge deceptive representations while bringing Tipton to life. The storytelling truthfully explores the ups and downs of trans representation in the media. Sometimes, with increased visibility comes targeting and violence. The inclusion of trans masculine voices gives them that opportunity to be part of the process in shaping a better understanding, and to be part of trans history.
Knowing nothing about Billy Tipton prior to this documentary, I was left with such a beautiful and powerful insight into how impactful his legacy was. It was moving to watch, especially considering how severely his life was distorted by a media frenzy. To retell his story, the filmmakers infuse creative narratives including a casting call for Billy. The doc introduces trans masculine actors reading a scripted scene, while also discovering more about themselves and about Billy. It’s a wonderful decision to bring some focus onto these actors, who stress the importance of having role models, seeing their realities represented, and knowing that they exist in a world in which trans people’s histories have been erased.
After Billy’s story was released to the media, his family appeared on talk shows and interviews discussing how they felt. One of the most apparent ways the media completely disregarded Billy was their focus on everyone but him. What about his wife? What would it be like to be married to Billy? What about his kids? Part of the documentary includes the perspective of his son Billy Jr., looking at the loneliness that came with carrying his father’s legacy during a media frenzy and now seeing an abundance of people reaching out expressing love and admiration for his father.
What makes No Ordinary Man so engaging in its storytelling is the abundance of different perspectives and narratives uniting in a loving way to retell a misrepresented legacy. The power of role models, truthfulness, and understanding shines through from beginning to end. There’s also a beautiful song that plays in the end credits - Man Like You (No Ordinary Man) by Lane Webber and Patrick Watson. This is a beautiful, insightful must-see doc.