The life of transmasculine musician Billy Tipton gives directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt the perfect opening to explore the history of transmasculinity in culture in the excellent feature documentary, No Ordinary Man.
Billy Tipton’s life is remarkable. Born in 1914, Tipton’s music career began as a radio band leader in 1936 establishing himself over the airwaves before hitting the road and touring with bands, going on to form the Billy Tipton Trio in 1951 and having a successful recording career. Eventually he settled down, got married and had children. No one knew he was a trans man, not even his family. It was only when he passed away in 1989 that all was revealed, and his life was turned into tabloid fodder.
Chin-Yee and Joynt peel back the layers of Tipton’s life, to undo the gossip and damage that has been done to his family and his legacy in the years since his death, and to retell his story, while at the same time telling a much larger story, often overlooked in mainstream culture, that of trans men more generally.
This is no traditional biographical documentary, the directors bring in a wide range of transmasculine performers to audition for the role of Tipton – reading scenes from a screenplay about Tipton’s life and discussing the moments with an authentic trans narrative. By enabling these performers put themselves in Billy’s shoes, to feel the emotional heft of choices and moments in his narrative, Tipton’s history comes alive with love. There is a joy and celebration in No Ordinary Man that is so appealing, even as the film deals with the issues Billy’s life raises.
Tipton’s family is represented in archive interviews with his wife and son Billy Jr., as well as contemporary interviews with Billy Jr. For the first time Billy Jr. gets to see his father’s story as one of progress and witness the impact his father had on a new generation of bold transmasculine folks who can now be open about their gender identity.
It’s this personal connection that helps No Ordinary Man rise above other recent documentaries and by reframing the narrative away from Billy as ‘an ambitious woman who lied about being a man to get ahead’ to one of a trans man whose talent saw him soar and pursue his authentic happiness, is uplifting and refreshing.
No Ordinary Man screens in cinema on March 3rd as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2021. Head to the website for tickets and more info.