Sundance Film Review: ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’

Sundance U.S. Documentary Competition 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Literary hoax mastermind Laura Albert tells her side, not always persuasively, in this slickly crafted documentary.

After refusing to cooperate with Marjorie Sturm on the latter’s fascinating “The Cult of JT Leroy” last year, Laura Albert gets a podium for airing her side — and nobody else’s — in Jeff Feuerzeig’s “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” For many, however, the result may feel less an exoneration than a case of “Give ’em enough rope … ” The woman who wrote acclaimed books while posing as HIV-positive ex-prostitute transgender male Leroy does not buy as much retrospective sympathy as she seeks in painting herself as victim to various circumstances beyond her control, ignoring or evading the many ways in which the saga played out as a calculated, opportunistic con. This slickly crafted first-person recap of “JT’s” starry rise and fall may well travel farther than its predecessor; Amazon picked up U.S. rights (its very first documentary acquisition) at Sundance. But it’s ultimately the less interesting film of the two, one in dire need of additional voices that might substantiate Albert’s account, and rendered suspect by their conspicuous absence.

Opening with footage of Winona Ryder gushing that she first met Leroy “many years ago” (itself a questionable claim) before introducing the elusive alleged scribe at the height of “his” celebrity, the pic weaves back and forth through time, chronicling both Leroy’s fame and Albert’s preceding decades in obscurity. A Brooklyn native from a broken home, she’d relocated to San Francisco when in the mid-1990s she called a crisis hotline and the 13-year-old “Terminator” (later called JT Leroy) supposedly just bubbled up out of her psyche. The therapist on call, Dr. Terrence Owens — who continued to advise this client by phone for years — swallowed this persona as real, eventually encouraging him to work out his issues (from a purported horrifying past) in writing.

Whether that tact proved genuinely therapeutic for her or not, Albert wasted little time before soliciting the long-distance patronage of high-profile literary agents and authors, who were genuinely impressed by the work. But they were also undeniably roped in by Leroy’s tragic backstory and the ruse that the stories (though billed as fiction when published) were basically autobiographical. When “Sarah” was published in 1999, the clamor for “shy” Leroy resulted in Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop posing as the androgynous, heavily wigged/sunglassed figure in live appearances (Albert continued handling the role otherwise). Later, Albert (often posing as Leroy’s British-accented assistant, Speedie) used the newfound fame to secure film-adaptation contracts; tried launching a music career for herself and spouse Geoff Knoop; and become alleged besties with various film and rock stars before a series of exposes brought the whole thing crashing down in 2005.

It’s unsurprising that we don’t hear from any of the celebrities no doubt still stung by having publicly championed a nonexistent figure. But the few people (mostly literary-world pros) we do hear from seem carefully curated and/or edited to avoid any accusatory or aggrieved sentiments, despite the justifiably angry response from most quarters to what Albert now coyly calls Leroy’s “reveal.” Even when a latter-day Savannah is finally heard from, she says so little that her inclusion hardly seems worth it.

That leaves us listening almost exclusively to Albert, who views those who would no longer enable her gambit as “traitors” and talks a very slippery line alternately suggesting that Leroy et al. were a kind of deliberate performance (she constantly cites her early interest in the punk scene as evidence of subversive artistic intent) and that they were a helpless manifestation of inner demons. She flat-out denies having multiple personality disorder, but without any alternative diagnostic insight, we’re left to wonder if she’s simply a very cunning liar — one who still invariably passes the blame rather than accept any glimmer of responsibility. Her tales of formative molestation and fat shaming would be more persuasive if she hadn’t already proven herself willing to invent abuse scenarios to gain attention and sympathy. “Author” omits some of the more ethically appalling tactics she deployed to keep celebrity confidantes spellbound by the thought that they were helping a luridly wronged transgender waif.

Feuerzeig’s prior documentaries “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King” were also portraits of misfits who wanted to be rock stars and willed it into being, if only in their own minds (and those of cult followings considerably smaller than Leroy’s). But he’s not dealing with a practitioner of real naive art here, but a faker (however talented) of the same who appears to have manipulated the content of this film — at least to an extent — as successfully as she manipulated perception of Leroy for so long.

Though the subject’s talking-head defense is the primary element here, “Author” draws on diverse materials, including a surprising wealth of (presumably real) home movies from Albert’s youth, plus clips and behind-the-scenes footage from Asia Argento’s 2004 Leroy-based film, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” Though none is interviewed here, there are plenty of taped phone-call and voicemail excerpts involving such A-list pals as Gus Van Sant, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and Courtney Love (whose snippet does not flatter). Albert is correct about one thing: Whatever literary talent Leroy was praised for shouldn’t have been so quickly forgotten and dismissed by those who’d once championed it. However, that praise was won under false pretenses — and while you can criticize Leroy fans for claiming to love the writing when they really fell in love with the myth it came packaged in, you can’t blame them for feeling ripped off.

“Author” is polished in its own packaging, one minor but nagging misstep being a borderline obtrusive over-use of foley effects to color the spoken elements. The brief animated sequences (illustrating Leroy writings) by Joshua Mulligan and Stefan Nadelman are a plus.

Sundance Film Review: 'Author: The JT Leroy Story'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) An A&E Indiefilms and Ratpac Documentary Films presentation, in association with Complex Corp., of a Vice production. (International sales: WME, Los Angeles.) Produced by Jeff Feuerzeig, Danny Gabai, Jim Czarnecki, Molly Thompson, Brett Ratner. Executive producers, Robert Sharenow, Robert DeBitetto, James Packer, Marie Therese Guirgis, Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith, Henry S. Rosenthal.

Crew

Directed, written by Jeff Feuerzeig. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Richard Henkels; editor, Michelle M. Witten; animation, Joshua Mulligan, Stefan Nadelman; sound, Robert Reinfried, Daniel S. McCoy, Peter Olsted, Joshua Hilson, Miliken Gardner, Spencer Smith; sound designer, Nicholas Tuttle; re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg.

With

Laura Albert, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Ira Silverberg, Panio Gianopoulos, Savannah Knoop.

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  1. Joel says:

    This is probably the best organized publicity stunt ever by ALL parties involved. Proof of this is another article that was released 3 days ago titled “Asia Argento and others are angry about JT LeRoy” documentary. For starters, The fact that the article title was more concerned with making mentions of Asia Argento” further proves the interest to draw attention to the film release. According to the story that was fed to the public, Ms. Argento and her ilk of seasoned industry elite were “clueless” to the fact that this JT LeRoy character had zero credibility/trajectory yet they decided to move forward and work with him only to find themselves being recorded without consent for a documentary. Seriously? It is interesting to see that- conveniently no one actually sued Laura after all this came to light years’ ago, they just waited to express their “fake outrage” now- a few days before the documentary is set to come out. Now the controversy behind the film is back in the press and sure to open the masses’ curiosity to go see the film. ABSOLUTE PUBLICITY ALL AROUND. Everyone benefited from this hoax and probably signed a deniability clause.

  2. Oscar Felix6 says:

    From all sides? The only side this presents is Laura’s. The cult doc is the definitive treatment of this sad ordeal, this is just self serving puffery and Jeff was another of Laura’s victims. He’ll wise up soon enough.

  3. BayareaHB says:

    Laura , you are such a sicko and have conned people for long enough. I can’t believe you still get a podium for this mental illness. I’ll never forget what lengths you went through to decieve me and my family and I hope your little PR tour for this backfires.

  4. Jesus christ, Laura Albert stop commenting on these articles, your venomous words covered up by various alias’ on here aint fooling anyone.

  5. Ernesto Diaz-Infante says:

    For the record (although it may not be worth it considering how batshit the comments are), Marjorie Sturm’s “The Cult of JT LeRoy” won two Jury prizes (SF IndieFest and Oslo/Fusion International) in 2015 and played at top-tier festivals around the world (including Hot Docs, Rio, Durban, Leeds, Melbourne, American Film Festival, and Doc NYC). The irony that those inclined to “punk” values eschew the virtues of ‘production values’ and Amazon picking is somewhat typical of the topic. What is somewhat frightening is that we live in such an unethical culture that we can’t see criminal behavior for what it is, and that if it didn’t happen to us personally . . . well, then it didn’t happen . . . or we want to think that ‘art’ somehow transcends ethics. It doesn’t.

  6. I would say that the reason no one has ever heard of or seen the Sturm film is because it was at best a slanted and narrow view of it’s subject. A real amateurish and whining, agenda-laden bore of a film.
    Whereas this highly acclaimed doc by Feuerzeig was accepted into competition at Sundance and for good reason. The film fully explores the subject from all sides and will prove to be a hit both on screen and in video format simply because it’s so unique and absolutely fascinating! A great film.

  7. Nicole V. Gagné says:

    I will not attempt here to trace Dennis Harvey’s involvement with Marjorie Sturm, Michelle Tea, or other minor denizens of the insular San Francisco arts scene, whom he has praised extravagantly in the pages of Variety. I will simply state the fact that, no matter what they think of the JT LeRoy books, anyone who asserts that Sturm’s CULT is a superior film to Feuerzeig’s AUTHOR is either delusional or dishonest. Harvey’s celebration of CULT over AUTHOR is not a minority critical opinion (although no one else has written anything so nonsensical). It’s not a critical opinion at all. It’s simply a personal bias, and to pass that off as film criticism is shameful. On every level — editing, camerawork, lighting, music, narrative, insight, accuracy, honesty, poetry — AUTHOR crushes CULT. That’s because, unlike Sturm, Jeff Feuerzeig is an artist — that’s why he is able to help audiences appreciate artists like Daniel Johnston or Laura Albert.

    • dharv2014 says:

      I’ve never met Marjorie Sturm or Michelle Tea, as far as I know, so I’m not sure what “Nicole” is implying about my “involvement” about what she pettily calls “minor denizens of the insular San Francisco arts scene.” (Well, actually, I know what you’re implying, that I have some sort of private agenda linked to personal loyalties…unfortunately for you, that is just not true.) Sorry if my opinions about these two films can only seem to you a “personal bias,” but they are my genuine opinions. It’s interesting that “Nicole” and other defenders of “Author” who sound suspiciously like the “author” herself can only view opinions that displease them in conspiratorial terms.

  8. Adrian says:

    This is probably the first review that I have ever read in Variety, which attempts to promote another documentary in its first line. I have seen Marjorie Sturm’s film and it is amateurish at best. Its meandering and confusing narrative is reminiscent of a high-school video project. It is clear the writer of this review is chums with Ms. Sturm.

    On the other hand, Jeff Feuerzeig, the director of “Author,” has won the Directing Prize for Documentary at Sundance, amongst other honors, and his new documentary is engaging, funny, and intriguing. It presents a tremendous amount of information without boring or confusing the audience.“Author” epitomizes brilliant documentary filmmaking.

    I wish that the writer of the critique would have set aside his personal agenda and focused on writing a review on the many qualities of Feuerzeig’s documentary. I find it extraordinarily unprofessional that the writer of this critique injected his personal agenda into what should have been a fair review of the cinematic quality of “Author.”

    • FerventFlinger says:

      It’s not the author’s fault Marjorie Strum did a much better job getting to the bottom of this story. Nice try, Laura. It’s amazing how you just can’t help yourself — you just dig deeper and deeper, tell bigger and bigger lies. It’s always somebody else’s fault. You honestly think this movie is your ticket out of purgatory? If anything, you just underlined what a louse you are.

  9. Patti Sullivan says:

    Wow, this writer really has a bone to pick with Laura Albert. I can just say that I sat through the trial next to Marjorie Strum and she was one of the most unhinged people I have ever had to speak to. She kept trying to coax me to go on camera and trash Laura. I was at the trial not to trash someone, who was already being scorned at and sued by a top notch line up of white shoe male lawyers, but to simply watch the proceedings. You see, I was present for the whole narrative arc of this story. I was the screenwriter for SARAH. I did not know that JT LEROY was Laura Albert until NY Magazine broke the story. I was amazed. Gus Van Sant, who I had worked with on this, was amazed, but any artist, who dug beneath the “tawdry” details of a rushed to press story, understood the complexity of how this author came to create the person J.T. LeRoy, who would go on to write the book SARAH. To all what Ms. Albert did a “hoax” is to demean and, I think, willfully neglect the more complicated and rich details of how all of this opera, of sorts, came to be. For what it’s worth, the writer of this review comes out raging by using the name of Marjorie Strum, which immediately shows a boas and intimacy with aspects of the story he is merely supposed to be critiquing as a film. As a film critique, he is quite unworthy of the authority given to him. Variety can do better. There are some very good film critics out there looking for work.

  10. candyradar says:

    Strange how the writer of this review also wrote a glowing review of the other JT movie that went largely unnoticed by the festival circuit and the film community at large. Wonder why it went unnoticed and Laura Albert didn’t participate in the other film? Probably because it was amateur filmmaking from a nobody named Marjorie Strum that narrated her own documentary and got her friends to write glowing reviews.

    It’s clear who the real winner is as this movie just premiered at a Sundance and was probably the biggest documentary acquisition of the entire festival if not the entire year.

    • charles b. Wessler says:

      Candy is Clearly Laura Albert doing what she feels most comfortable doing… speaking behind another name. This woman was a liar and a cheat and stole money from a LOT of people. How on EARTH can one make a so called “documentary” with help and guidance of the subject ? Maybe Bob Durst should hire a couple of documentary (anyone really) makers? The “nobody” as Laura calls her made an amazing documentary that shows only the truth. Not one person in the doc got paid…..

      • Leroycon says:

        Hey Jeff! You OK with this lunatic continuing her scams and using you as a tool? You damn well recognize the writing style above. As do we all, Laura.

  11. This is a great story… but it cannot be told by the bullshit artist who perpetrated this mess… the only real source so far is the doc skillfully made by Marjorie Strum – The Cult Of JT Leroy.

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