Are Documentaries Necessarily True? A review of ‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’

By Bradley Bethel 

September 27, 2016

If documentaries are supposed to be true stories, Author: The JT LeRoy Story may need to be listed under a different genre.

JT LeRoy was an underground literary star in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1999, he published two novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, both influenced by his life as a teenage hustler. The gritty realism of his writing attracted a large following among not only contemporary lit enthusiasts but among artists, filmmakers, musicians, and other writers as well.

At first, LeRoy made no public appearances and his reclusiveness added to the mystique surrounding him and his work. When he finally emerged from his urban seclusion, his androgynous appearance and epigrammatic speech secured his status as the cool new author on the scene. Anyone who was hip, or wanted to be hip, wanted to get close to LeRoy, and his seeming aloofness to the acclaim made him all the more alluring.

Jeff Feuerzeig, director of AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY, Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: David Newsom

In early 2006, however, LeRoy’s stardom came to an end when an investigative report published in the New York Times revealed that JT LeRoy was himself a fiction.

LeRoy, the Times reported, wasn’t actually LeRoy. His manager, Speedie, was. Except she wasn’t really Speedie, either. She was a woman named Laura Albert, and she was the one who had written the novels.

Celebrities who had befriended LeRoy were furious, and many fans felt duped. If JT LeRoy had remained just a pen name for an antisocial writer, no one would have thought less of Albert. But when JT LeRoy became flesh, he became a hoax.

Now, ten years later, Author tells LeRoy’s story. Or, rather, Author lets Albert tell LeRoy’s story.

Albert is captivating on screen. With dramatic hand gestures and emphatic facial expressions, she looks directly into the camera to plead her case. Close-ups place her in the center of the frame and further embellish the sincerity she so shrewdly projects. Throughout the film, Albert brilliantly crafts her narrative to elicit sympathy for herself as the protagonist in a tragedy. She is undeniably a master storyteller.

AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

Albert’s story, and the film itself, is as fascinating as it is tragic. Yet, at the end of the film, we are left wondering, is any of it true?

“To have Laura Albert tell her own story is something I stand by,” director Jeff Feuerzeig told the New York Times. His approach to making Author, he explained, was informed by Werner Herzog’s notion of ecstatic truth.

According to Herzog, ecstatic truth is deeper than what facts alone can convey and requires artistic license to attain. Feuerzeig, however, seems to reduce ecstatic truth to mere subjectivity. He relies almost entirely on Albert for the narrative, which makes the film as much Albert’s as it is Feuerzeig’s.

Laura Albert in AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

Consider Errol Morris’s Tabloid (2010) in contrast to Author. In Tabloid, Morris gives the fabulist Joyce McKinney a platform to tell her side of a kidnapping story that made international headlines in 1977. Yet Tabloid also features subjects with contradictory perspectives. Through the film, Morris offers not an objective account of the events but an independently crafted narrative from which we may discern some original, ecstatic truth.  

In Author, Feuerzeig offers no such independently crafted narrative. What he fails to understand about ecstatic truth is that it is the artist’s truth, not the subject’s. Again, his film relies almost entirely on Albert’s narrative. Author is thus bereft of original truth, despite the filmmaker’s Herzogian aspirations. It is a provocative film but not necessarily a true one.

Still, Author is a must-see for documentary lovers and literary buffs.

Included in the film are a number of cassette recordings Albert accumulated over the years from phone conversations she had with celebrities who thought they were talking with LeRoy. During a conversation with the writer Mary Karr about the recent popularity of memoirs, Karr says, “I think the interest in memoir is not from the fact that it’s fact but because it’s accessible to emotion.”

Facts— and truth— may be scant in Feuerzeig’s Author but, like a good memoir, it is acutely accessible to emotion, and that makes it one of the most entertaining documentaries of the year.


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