The documentary “No Ordinary Man” examines the life and death of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who rose to prominence in the 1930s and whose career spanned more than 40 years. Billy was described by his friends as an accomplished gentleman, and he cherished his family, with three children whom he adopted with his partner, Kitty. Billy lived his life quietly, but his death in 1989 became a national spectacle after it became clear during preparations for the funeral that he was transgender. Members of his family have appeared on talk shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where they testified that they did not know Billy was transgender.
Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt use a variety of strategies to present a reexamination of Billy’s life and memory. In interviews, transgender historians share their knowledge of her career and place the chaos that followed her death in the larger context of transgender portrayal in the media. The filmmakers also scripted imagined scenes from Billy’s life, employing transgender actors to play the role of Billy. Actors are invited to reflect on their impression of Billy, and how his experience relates to theirs. More moving, Billy’s son Billy Tipton Jr. talks about his memories of his father.
It is a respectful tribute that is a bit too morally and cinematically sure in its execution. It feels like any revelation or assumption made about Billy among its speakers could shake up the private – and absent – person at the center of the film. The result is a bittersweet film, a collection of impressions for a man who may never have been fully known.
No ordinary man
Unclassified. Duration: 1 hour 23 minutes. In theaters.