On paper, Author: The JT LeRoy Story should be one of the best documentaries I’ve seen all year. It has a deeply weird premise, a subject who is willing to be totally honest in front of the camera, and tons of recorded conversations with very famous people. And yet, by the time I hit the halfway point, I didn’t feel anything but boredom. Despite all the recorded chats with Billy Corgan, the stories about hanging out with Asia Argento, and the fascinating web of lies, Author had reached a point where it felt like the subject, Laura Albert, was simply using the medium to list the different celebrities she’d managed to trick. Sure, there was a little bit of introspection, and the story itself is one for the ages, but in this format it didn’t just fall flat, it felt fake.
If you’re not familiar with the story, kickback because things are about to get strange. Author follows the story of Laura Albert, who penned two incredibly popular books, “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” under the name JT LeRoy, an androgynous teen who had grown up the son of a truck stop sex worker. JT was much more than just a pen name: he was a fully formed person in Albert’s mind, so much so she used to call psychiatrists and pretend to be JT on the phone, even going as far to take on a bashful southern drawl. After Sarah was published and was a major hit, all sorts of people (including the very rich and very famous) were reaching out to JT. They wanted to pick his brain, have him perform readings, and all sorts of things that involved going outside and talking to real people. The problem, of course, is that JT was as real as Mickey Mouse. So Albert, convinced her boyfriend’s sister, Savannah Knoop, to don a blond wig and huge sunglass, effectively transforming her into the gender bending JT.
And it worked. People really did believe Knoop was JT. She went backstage at U2 shows to have private chats with Bono, she did fashion spreads, she traveled to Italy to meet Asia Argento (who wanted to make “Sarah” into a movie). And all the while, Albert was busy on the phone, chatting up Gus Van Sant, Billy Corgan, Dennis Cooper, and more (all with that southern accent in tact). Eventually, Albert inserted herself into the mythos of JT. She donned a fake british accent, and went around the world with Knoop, pretending to be JT’s best friend and manager Speedy. Even Albert’s boyfriend got in on the act and took on the name Astor, who was at one point JT’s boyfriend and then later on Speedy’s boyfriend. They started a band, with lyrics penned by JT. It was madness.
The true gem in this doc is that JT seemed to record every conversation he ever had. Snippets of chats with the very famous litter the film, and present an absolutely fascinating look at the intimate friendships between JT and other creatives. You get to hear Van Sant thank JT for helping him win the Palm d’Or for Elephant. You get to hear him casually chat with Tom Waits. You even get to hear Billy Corgan refer to himself as “The Corganator” (I had to pause the movie and laugh for a few minutes when that happened). But after a while, even that starts to feel grating. The movie relentlessly follows the same pattern. Albert tells a lie, people believe it, Albert tells another lie, people believe it, etc. There’s nothing vital or lively about it. Every character, even the real ones, feel flat. A story like this should feel captivating and engaging, but it doesn’t even come close.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few moments of clarity. When Albert’s actual homelife is presented alongside the story of JT, it’s easy to see why she would find solace in the character. Albert might have been making up the specifics (and it was beyond cruel of her to say JT was dying of HIV), but she wasn’t making up the pain. So I can see how diving into the life of someone else in order to explain your own hardships would not only be appealing, but a way of working through the pain. I can even see how JT would take on a life of his own. It doesn’t excuse the lies, and it doesn’t excuse how lifeless this documentary is, but it’s the one thing in the story that does make sense.