No Ordinary Man BFI Flare review – the story of Billy Tipton’s extraordinary legacy

Posted on 15 April 2021
By Olivia Houghton
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No Ordinary Man is a startling cinematic experience, which explores the life of Billy Tipton and highlights both the huge differences and similarities facing the transgender community today.

By the 1930s, jazz was an evolving, popular genre of music, and LGBTQIA+ icon Billy Tipton was no stranger to it.

In their explorative documentary, Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt chronicle Tipton’s acclaimed jazz career and his undeniable legacy within the community.

Over 84 minutes, we follow the story of Billy Tipton’s life: a transgender jazz musician in America whose popularity and fame were eminent in the late 1930s until the early ‘70s.

Until his death in 1989, no one was aware he was transgender, not even his wife or adopted sons. Following his death, Tipton quickly became a prominent talking point in the media.

There is what now seems like shocking footage of Chat show icon Oprah Winfrey prying painfully into the marriage of Tipton and his ex-partner Kitty Kelly.

The studio audience are allowed to hurl transphobic remarks at Kitty and Billy’s son (Billy Jr.), which leaves viewers feeling uncomfortable.

Biographer Diane Middlebrook wrote about Tipton’s life in her book Suits Me: The Double Life Of Billy Tipton, which was not well received among the community.

The reason the documentary is so magically enthralling, is the result of how Chin-Yee and Joynt have chosen to animate the story.

Although the film’s prime purpose is to highlight and commemorate Tipton’s life, it does much more.

Archival footage throughout the documentary provides the audience with a visual understanding of who Tipton was.

Aisling Chin-Yee described the struggles of collecting the archival footage, she said: “There is little to no footage out there of Billy.

“So we knew that we wouldn’t be able to fall back onto the regular modes of documentary biopic story telling.”

The audience gets a better understanding of Tipton’s identity in the documentary, through a great narrative device, which has actors entering an audition for the role of Billy Tipton.

This brought him to life and allowed viewers to build a realistic perception of him. The documentary makers explained their reasoning for animating Billy Tipton in this way, in an elusive interview to Purple Revolver.

Aisling and Chase said: “We didn’t want to do recreation in that kind of ‘unsolved mysteries’ way. We wanted to make this a more life-based experience. Opening it up to the interpretations of lots more people than just one actor.

“That was our way of having these milestones of Billy’s life layered throughout the film so we would always return to him and why it’s meaningful to tell his story today, through a contemporary lens.”

The film features an eclectic mix of prominent voices from the Trans community. It was riveting to learn how Tipton’s transmasculine life and legacy mirrored and influenced contemporary experiences.

Each person featured in the documentary shared their personal trans journey, all of which identified with Tipton in some way.

It was evident that he was a true role model, to not only the community as a whole, but also individual lives.

Chase spoke of the interviewees’ enthusiasm to take part: “We felt very lucky approaching them, saying we are making a film about this… and everyone was like ‘absolutely we will be there!’”

Despite us not learning much of Tipton’s life in detail, there is an abundance of emotion and information seeping from the screen.

This expressive masterpiece highlights the fact that Tipton was a pioneer, who was brave and impressively modern for the time he lived in.

Though centralised around the narrative of Tipton’s life, the main characters were really the transgender legends featured, who provide us with real, thought-provoking ideas.

Each interviewee featured on the film is captivatingly wise, incredibly intelligent, emotionally honest yet composed.

Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt have beautifully and uniquely crafted a cinematic tapestry, weaving the story of Billy Tipton and the importance of transgender issues.

They added: “Our project is an example of what happens when you believe people when they tell you who they are and use that as the springboard from which to tell a story.

“We feel so lucky to be in conversation with so many trans identified people who are also able to look back in history and ‘say well this is what happens when you lose control of the ability to tell your own story’. People start to tell your story for you.

“There is something really important to consider in our project because we don’t ultimately know how Billy identified. He wouldn’t have been using the language that we do today.

“Our project isn’t invested in being right about those things but rather to say what happens when a community can look back and find someone they resonate with, or someone who makes a life seem possible. To me that seems like a much more interesting approach to history.”

This reviewer urges audiences to seek out and watch this documentary, as it is a fascinating insight into the life of Billy Tipton, which shines a compassionate yet necessary spotlight on the importance of transgender representation. Watch this film.