Film Review: Author: The JT LeRoy Story (USA, 2016)

One lonely night in the mid-nineties, a struggling writer named Laura Albert telephones a psychologist, Dr Terrence Owens, pretending to be a younger man named Terminator. He has a lot to talk about; most notoriously his years as an underage truck-stop prostitute pimped out by his mother.

Dr Owens thinks it would be healthy for Terminator to put his story on paper. So Albert scribbles something down and sends it to the psychiatrist, who, floored by the young man’s eloquence, passes it on to a publisher. Suddenly Terminator – now Jeremy Terminator Leroy, or JT Leroy – has a book deal. No problem, Albert just writes a book.

The resulting novel, Sarah (2000), purportedly signifies the most original new voice since William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Millions of fans are desperate to attend a reading with JT. Courtney Love wants to hang, Bono wants to give him advice. Never one to fold, Albert enlists her androgynous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to dress up as a young male. From there, everyone from Bono to Winona Ryder, Asia Argento, Lou Reed and a German news program gets punk’d.

Director Jeff Feuerzeig, who previously made The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), matches his subject’s breathless pace, primarily using her cassette tapes of all the phone calls as JT, with the voices emanating from upturned landlines on bathroom floors and hotel rooms. There’s also Albert telling her story right down the barrel of the camera, animated sequences of JT’s writing, home movies of JT hanging with Asia Argento and Courtney Love, and bootleg video of JT reading ‘his’ work to a packed stadium from underneath a table.

It’s all very entertaining until it’s not. Albert, who presently looks like Iggy Pop’s twin sister, is a captivating storyteller. Alas, like many a shameless name-dropper, she starts out as fascinating, until that point where you realise she’s more fascinated than anyone else ever could be.

A little too late, Feuerzeig covers the eventual exposure of this hoax, and we get some half-baked conclusions about whether it is a hoax or not, since JT is clearly borne of Albert’s own abusive childhood. There’s also some brief debate on whether the existence of JT Leroy somehow relates to the validity of the novels, which have always been clearly labelled as ‘fiction’ in little writing on the top-right corner of the back cover, thank you very much.

Anyway, it’s not for this reviewer to answer such profound questions, only to express his impression of the film. The most entertaining aspect is how everyone in that crazy town gravitates towards this hip new thing. That includes Laura Albert, and the journalists who broke her would-be-Lolito into a million pieces that faded, like so much goss, into the half-remembered yesterdays of Hollywood, only for this documentary to not-quite put it together again.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is exclusive to Golden Age Cinema in NSW. A limited season starts from Thursday 5 January 2017 and concludes on 15 January. For tickets and more details head to http://ourgoldenage.com.au/film/author/