Review: “I Stand Corrected,” the Amazing Journey of Jennifer Leitham
by Larry Murray
The documentary film I Stand Corrected is extraordinary on several levels. It follows the tall and striking John Leitham from his childhood where his self-recognition as a female clashed with his physical being as a male. Coming to grips with the conflicting identities, it wasn’t until midlife that she finally physically became Jennifer Leitham, though she had been quietly living at home with her identity for decades.
Leitham was, and still is, a jazz phenomenon on the bass. Filmmaker Andrea Meyerson captures the colorful jazz scene throughout the film. It follows Jennifer’s earlier years as John, with a page boy haircut and sometimes androgenous traits. That all changed following hormonal therapy which caused loss of muscle mass in her upper shoulders and arms. Late in her music career she made the leap, and the beauty with the auburn hair began playing the instrument standing up, using her whole body to infuse her music with the kind of soul jazz is famous for. “I may have lost some upper body strength in the transition,” she notes, “but I gained more sensitivity and dexterity in my fingers,” something that makes Jennifer one of the fastest bass players in that world. With a gorgeous voice to match, she has it all.
But the jazz world, for all its artistry, is still largely homophobic and transphobic and so she has paid a price for her change in identity. In rock, being LGBT is usually not a problem, but jazz is still considered quite a macho musical form. Many musicians – Doc Severinsen, for one – supported her through her difficult process, but out on her own, traditional booking agents turned their backs on her. After the operation, she continued with Severinsen for several years, and then began to write more of her own music and formed a trio. Eventually she left the big band to work on her own music. Today, Jennifer acts as her group’s manager, booking agent and problem solver.
Jennifer Leitham says she’s always had a hard time sitting still when she’s onstage. Music has a visceral effect upon her, and never more so than when she’s caught up in a tune, her arms embracing her left-handed instrument, her toes beginning to move in rhythm with the music. After years of attempting to hold those feelings in check by confining herself to the top of a wooden stool, she finally decided to set her feelings free…she began to play while standing, her body now unrestrained, moving in deep emotional physical sync with the pulsing rhythms she plucked from her dark-toned acoustic bass. “I immediately felt liberated,” says Leitham. “It was a revelation. And now I’m free to dance around any way I want.” – Don Heckman, Jazz Times
Of course, Leitham’s life as a musician is of special interest to this reviewer whose affinity for performing artists always seems to take the front seat in my writing. But this film, while covering her incredible career as both John and Jennifer Leitham, also focuses on the transition itself. Jennifer found a partner when she was living as John, and reveals both the depth of her love, and the terrible heartbreak when it ended. She began hormone therapy the day after her mate announced she was leaving.
The surgery did not go well, she had terrible complications, and this documentary does not shy away from detailing how that affected her life and transition. But she prevailed, and finally achieved her goal of simply being the person she knew she was, something most of us are still grappling with.
“I have four birthdays,” she explained. Four different dates that all represent birth, in one form or another, for her: the day she was physically born; the day she officially chose to transition from a male to a female; the day she legally and socially altered her name; and the day she physically left behind her maleness.
In I Stand Corrected, the journey is brilliantly documented with film clips and photos from her childhood to today and we get to hear her firsthand account of this most unusual life. We also get to hear a tempting variety of the music she made with such notables as Woody Herman, Severinsen and Mel Torme, as well as her glorious original work. Her new life as a fully realized Jennifer seems to have caused an explosion of creativity. Her songs are beautiful. And haunting.
To say that this is one of best LGBT documentaries of the year does not give the film enough credit. It is right up there with all the mainstream offerings, too. And if you are a bit squeamish about the subject of transgender identity and the medical procedures that lie at the crossroads of gender resolution and fulfillment, this film is so loving, so full of humanity, that you will come to a new appreciation of what some people have to do to simply be themselves.
I Stand Corrected, a film Directed by Andrea Meyerson, Stand Out Productions, Producer – Kelly Bartone, Director of Photography – Adriana Torres. Running Time: 1:30:00 www.istandcorrectedmovie.com