Humans tend to simultaneously be voyeuristic and risk adverse. It’s why we’re so fascinated by the tales of the seedy side of life, of violence, abuse, drug use and trauma, particularly when it comes pre packaged in a comfortable form for us to consume like film or literature. It’s why Bukowski, Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr and to some extent even Hunter S Thompson continue to be so popular. We’ve enlisted these personalities to go out and live a life that we would never contemplate, to take risks, to live large and report back on the human condition. And it feels real, from Jim Morrison to Janis Joplin we’ve believed excess and trauma leads to some kind of undeniable truth and as a result we’ve put these people on pedestals. We want to believe. Provided it’s true. Because if we get the slightest whiff of exaggeration, fiction or creative license then the walls come down and the artist is dead to us – just ask James Frey. If there’s any deception then all the “truth” the amazing insights on the human condition no longer apply, they’re now fraudulent and the very act of tricking us renders whatever they had to say disposable and part of the con.
Occasionally something comes along that is a perfect storm. JT Leroy, the abused HIV positive transgender child of a truck stop prostitute turned acclaimed writer was very much that storm. His magical realism tales of southern gothic extremity captured the imagination of the literary establishment and celebrities alike who lined up to bask in his edgy aura. Author: The JT Leroy story begins with Winona Ryder waxing lyrical about how much his work meant to her and features a cavalcade of celebrity appearances by way of archival footage, but also private telephone recordings made by Leroy, such as Gus Van Sant, Michael Pitt, Matthew Modine, Lou Reed, Courtney Love who pauses midway to take a bump, Madonna, and Asia Argento who directed, starred in the film of JT Leroy’s work The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things – surely a truer title had never been written as Argento took Leroy as a lover.
The problem is that JT Leroy was himself a work of fiction himself – a pen name of US writer Laura Albert, who herself adopted a fake English accent and acted as JT’s manager/ hanger on ‘Speedie’ and roped in her sister in law to don a blond wig and sunglasses for public appearances. Thus there were fashion shoots, celebrity hangouts, parties, book tours, and backstage meetings with Bono and Billy Corgan. This scandal has been dealt with elsewhere, in particular 2015’s documentary by Marjorie Sturm’s 2015 The Cult of JT Leroy which detailed those that felt betrayed and manipulated by Albert, though never actually interviewed Albert hersef.
Jeff Feuerzeig’s (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) take on the phenomena is primarily a first person account by the author, a tell all justification of her actions and an explanation of the wild ride she experienced. She paints herself as a psychologically unstable with her own abuse history who innocently began writing about a part of herself she believed to be truly her as a form of therapy, before things got out of hand and she didn’t know how to get out. She makes a comment midway about her being a nothing while JT Leroy received all this loving attention and acclaim its difficult for this not to be addictive. You can see why Albert was interested in this doco, as it’s clearly an attempt by her to wrestle back the narrative that she has not had any control over since she’s been outed. You can see too why Feuerzeig was attracted, as there’s no doubt that Albert is a fascinating talented complex character. Her justifications, at times flimsy and could really have benefitted from the odd challenge from Feuerzeig, as you winder if Albert actually believes what she is saying as they can verge on delusional. Yet Feuerzeig clearly wanted to avoid making any moral judgements, and it’s to the detriment of the film. So persuasive is Albert that at times you actually start to see her as the victim here, which admittedly is a truly an amazing feat.
Feuerzeig imaginatively constructs the film with clever animation over excerpts from Leroy’s writing, archival footage of various events and readings as well as private phone conversations as mentioned above from the likes of Tom Waits or David Milch (Deadwood). It’s constructed like a roller coaster ride, a rollicking romp, boom and bust. It’s endlessly fascinating. Deception and emotional manipulation usually are, but when you add a hefty dose of rationalisation and narcissism to the pot well that just plain addictive.