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#TIFF20 Review: No Ordinary Man (TIFF Docs)

September 10, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Billy Tipton was an American jazz musician whose career as a pianist and bandleader spanned from the 1930s to the 1970s. At the time of his death in 1989, it was revealed that Tipton was transgender, having been assigned female at birth but living and publicly presenting as a man, a secret that he kept from even his partner and adopted sons. Tipton’s posthumous outing became sensationalized by the media, overshadowing his legacy as a musician.

Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt find a fascinating way to reclaim Tipton’s story in their documentary No Ordinary Man, assembling a cast of transgender actors and performers and having them “audition” for the role of Tipton. This ingenious narrative structure allows for reflection upon Tipton’s legacy, as well as a deeper conversation about gender identity then and now. This includes how different groups “fought” over Tipton’s identity, with women trying to claim him as a woman forced to put on men’s clothes to get gigs and play jazz, while everything in Tipton’s history affirms his identity as a trans man.

The filmmakers also connect with Tipton’s son, Billy Jr., and it’s moving to watch him reflect upon the relationship that he had with his father. It’s a really interesting approach that quite effectively answers the question of, how do you make a documentary about someone when no footage of them exists and they only have one living relative available to be interviewed? Beautifully assembled and structurally brilliant, No Ordinary Man is an exceptional documentary that powerfully recontextualizes Tipton’s story, while also providing a moving exploration of transmasculine identities.

Marquise Vilsón in No Ordinary Man

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 10th – 8:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, September 11th – 6:00 PM at Bell Digital Cinema (Online for 24 Hours)

Monday, September 14th – 9:00 PM at West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place

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