The latest documentary by director Jeff Feuerzeig, The JT Leroy Story, explores the making of the character of JT Leroy, an author who rose to fame in the early 2000s as a literary sensation by writing about his life, which included sexual abuse, homelessness and coping with HIV. A publisher recalls the work as a novelty, a new voice. However, the story of JT Leroy was a fantasy, a made-up story concocted by Laura Albert, a 40-year-old San Francisco woman originally from New York. She started using characters since early on in her life as she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. She used these personas partly to escape her life, which was full of trauma and abuse but also, seemingly, to get attention. She even attended therapy sessions as her character, melding fantasy and her life into different personas.
The character of JT Leroy was the longest lasting of the personas Laura Albert embodied, but there were others the documentary shows. Laura wrote Sarah a book about the life — imagined as it were — of JT Leroy. As the book published by JT Leroy came out, there were a flurry of rave reviews and it was happily received by audience. There were even well-attended readings where Albert used a stand-in, model Rain Dove Dubilewski, to play Leroy, with heavy clothing layers and sunglasses to hide the particulars of her look. The documentary presents the rapid rise to fame of Leroy by adding clips of famous people praising him, including TV shows, NPR’s “Fresh Air” and a bevy of celebrities. As Leroy rose to fame, Albert continued to write, perpetuating the legend status that Leroy was beginning to gain. Of course, since Leroy is an imagined character he was fairly absent from happenings, which made him even more desirable because of the elusive quality of his persona.
The documentary features several interviews, the most striking is that of Albert, with text of the book published under her pen-name as the background. It is mostly her story throughout the entire documentary, played over archival stills that are strung together over voice overs and recordings of the time. Some of the photos feature celebrities, who were clearly conned with the rest of the world into believing Leroy’s story of hardship. While the documentary keeps a pace fit for millennials, with many graphics and short sequences, there is something lacking in the way that Albert is presented, preventing the audience from really connecting to her and allowing her the redemption she seems to be seeking. The story doesn’t go too much past the sensationalism from the big lie. In fact, there are some sequences that delve into the more sordid aspects of Albert’s psyche and present them in a curious way, focusing on her dealings with celebrities and the details of her sexual life.
“Being with my Barbies I controlled and ordered the universe. My Barbie world was a happy world,” Albert says reminiscing on her childhood. However, she recalls playing with her Barbies in a setting that included rape, maiming, blood and other forms of abuse. “I had no idea that the way I played with Barbies was not normal,” says Albert of her memories, without a hint of irony and a straightforward delivery.
Some of the more interesting parts of the documentary present Leroy’s voice (recordings of Laura Albert embodying JT Leroy) through a voice over on top of a bare bones, almost completely black and white animation. These animations are so refreshing as they liven up what it must have been like at the time to listen to JT Leroy, and how he was perceived and accepted. Although the cartoons do not portray the exact JT Leroy, they are basic and plain enough to allow the audience to imagine these sequences in real life. The exacerbated overacting nature of the voice over will make you wonder how this story was so quickly accepted, but it might say more about the people who were attracted by the sordid details that made up story than it says about the con artist Laura Albert. This aspect is not at all explored in the documentary, a missed opportunity, in my opinion. Overall, this feels more like an extended “Behind the Music” episode, with emphasis on the celebrity journalism than a deeper, transformational documentary.
The JT Leroy Story runs 110 minutes and is rated R. It opens in South Florida on Sept. 23 at O Cinema Wynwood. For nationwide screenings please click here. A screener link and images were provided by Magnolia Pictures for the purposes of this review.
(Copyright 2016 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)