No Ordinary Man untangles the legacy of Billy Tipton

No Ordinary Man untangles the legacy of Billy Tipton
If you’ve even heard of jazz musician Billy Tipton, it’s probably for one of two reasons: you watched a lot of daytime TV shows in the late ’80s and early ’90s, or you’re an aficionado of mid-’50s easy listening jazz standards.

Tipton’s lasting cultural legacy — or, at the very least, his cultural legacy prior to the release of Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man — was one very much mired in tabloid culture. When Billy Tipton died of complications from a peptic ulcer in 1989, it was discovered that he had been assigned female at birth and had hidden this fact from his wives and children his entire life. The story was picked up by the tabloid press, eventually causing Tipton’s family to go on TV and discuss his identity at length. 

Although Tipton’s story was certainly not the first depiction of transmasculinity in mainstream media, it was one that stuck. 

Thomas McBee in No Ordinary Man

“In some ways, the talk and tabloid circuit was one of the only places where people were finding representation of trans and non-gender-conforming people,” says Joynt. “One of the things that’s so compelling to us as a creative team is that on one hand, it offers this kind of brutal insight on the way that, historically, trans people were treated on television. On the other hand, we can also recognize it as a moment where many of our trans-identified interlocutors, artists and activists saw representations that felt familiar. ‘Oh my God, there might be someone in the world who is kind of like me.’ It might be an imperfect representation, but it’s someone who’s living and thriving.

“We always want to treat the talk-show footage with that kind of complexity. I think one of the things that’s striking about our project is that we’re not actually talking about trans people on the talk-show circuit — we’re looking at non-trans people. We’re looking at Tipton’s family, and they do quite an extraordinary job of protecting their father’s legacy in the face of that kind of violent curiosity.” 

Billy Tipton in 1946

Although Tipton was a musician, he wasn’t one with a particularly deep discography. As a working jazz musician, he rarely recorded and mainly focused on performance of others’ compositions. That means that, while No Ordinary Man is unmistakably a film about a musician, it isn’t exactly a music documentary.

“We wanted to do his biography honestly,” says Chin-Yee. “And there’s nothing to be ashamed of, being a working musician. He didn’t need to change the genre, on top of everything else we’re exploring in the film. He was very much following a path of playing standards and so on. Again — super talented and had his craft down and knew how to present a great show, but his output was very limited. We worked with Rich Aucoin, a musician based in Nova Scotia, and one of the things that came out of the pandemic was that he couldn’t tour anymore. He’s a classical pianist, but he also works a lot with synths in a very contemporary way. But he’s also a gigging musician, and he was very excited to work with us to make something that’s essentially about all the musicians that don’t get biopics made about them and still contribute to the way we understand culture, music, genre and breaking musical barriers.”

No Ordinary Man directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt

Chin-Yee and Joynt have chosen to frame the film around a series of auditions of transmasculine actors reading for the part of Tipton in an imagined biopic. The actors discuss their own experiences of transmasculinity and media representation, around which the film builds the more straightforward biographical story of Tipton. The actors featured in the film don’t necessarily fit the casting description of Tipton — if Chin-Yee and Joynt really were making this biopic, that is.

“There’s no footage of Billy Tipton,” says Chin-Yee. “There’s nothing to pull from to show him in the past or show the milestones in his life. There’s a biography that we reference in the film and photos, but no footage. We could’ve gone re-creation, but that would’ve been the wrong thing to do, since it brings our own bias into the picture, and it’s a bit of a hokey, Unsolved Mysteries style that we didn’t want to be painting ourselves into a corner with. It also opened up the conversation about who Billy was and who Billy is to a much larger, more diverse group of artists. That felt exciting for us to do.”

“We put a call out and clustered the talent in New York and Los Angeles,” says Joynt. “One of the great things about putting a call out for participation in a documentary is that people walk in the door ready to be themselves. Very naturally, a conversation sparked in the waiting room between transmasculine actors about what it means to be an actor and a trans person in this particular moment in time. By virtue of who we are as a creative team, we found some conversational grooves with the talent in the casting room space that was an opportunity to talk out loud about Tipton’s life and history and the various ways in which they might approach the material.” ■

No Ordinary Man opens in Montreal at the Cinémathèque Québécoise and Cinéma du Musée on Friday, April 2. Watch the trailer here:

No Ordinary Man, directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt

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