‘No Common Man’ Review: The Life and Death of Billy Tipton

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The documentary “No Ordinary Man” examines the life and death of jazz musician Billy Tipton, who rose to prominence in the 1930s and whose career spanned over 40 years. Billy was described by his friends as the perfect gentleman and valued his family with his partner Kitty and three adopted children. Billy lived his life quietly, but his death in 1989 became a nationwide spectacle after it became clear he was transgender during preparations for the funeral. Members of his family have appeared on talk shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in which they confirmed they didn’t know Billy was transgender.

Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt use a variety of strategies to present a reassessment of Billy’s life and memory. Transgender historians share their knowledge of her career in interviews and place the posthumous chaos within the broader context of transgender representation in the media. The producers also scripted fictional scenes from Billy’s life, using transgender actors to play Billy. Players are asked to consider their impressions of Billy and how his experience relates to them. Most impressively, Billy’s son, Billy Tipton Jr., discusses his memories of his father.

It’s a respectful tribute that is morally and cinematically too safe in its execution. Any disclosure or assumption made about Billy among the speakers feels like it might offend the special – and absent – person at the center of the movie. The result is a bittersweet film that is a collection of impressions for a man who was never quite known.

No Ordinary Man
Not rated. Working time: 1 hour 23 minutes. In movie theaters.

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