Based on the hit West End show, which was inspired by a true story—or as the opening titles put it, “this really happened, then we added the singing and the dancing”—Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a gem of a movie musical. Director Johnathan Butterell’s screen adaptation made its Los Angeles debut last night under (and above) the stars at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, marking the opening of the 39th annual Outfest LA, the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ film festival, and launches globally on Amazon Prime Video on September 17th.
Jamie’s setting couldn’t be less Hollywood though, opening on a wet and dreary morning in Sheffield, Northern England, as we join the “glitter among the grey” Jamie New (Max Harwood making an impressive big screen debut) setting out for his soggy newspaper delivery route. It happens to be his sixteenth birthday, and the young lad pops on his tiara to open the few birthday cards he’s received in style, then takes it off before he heads to school.
In his final careers class, the dream-crushing Miss Hedge (a wonderful Sharon Horgan) urges her pupils to have realistic expectations about their jobs prospects as they head out in the world. Meanwhile Jamie scrolls through images on Instagram of his favourite drag queens and eyes up Miss Hedge’s knock-off Jimmy Choo’s. Asked about his own career aspirations by Hedge, Jamie is quickly transported away from the classroom to where he dreams of being, centre of attention at a nightclub and then a fashion show runway. It’s a sequence that’s typical of the movie’s musical numbers, boasting vibrant production design by Jane Levick, crisp, dynamic choreography that, like Christopher Ross’ cinematography, enhances the song but never distracts, capturing the energy of a live musical. The world inside Jamie’s head is colourfully and vividly brought to life, contrasting with the rather stifling humdrum ordinariness of his working class environment. Things aren’t all grim oop North though, with Ross capturing the beauty of the former industrial city in its surrounding countryside, shot on location in Sheffield.
The staging of the musical numbers is delightfully imaginative and continually inventive, taking elements from the real world over into the musical fantasies, like school cleaning ladies mopping the canteen floor transforming into glamorous nightclub backing singer divas. While the tunes range from the toe-tappingly upbeat and catchy dancefloor fillers, to touching ballads, composed by the original show’s co-creator, The Feeling frontman, Dan Gillespie Sells, with funny, heartwarming, and uplifting lyrics that avoid musical theatre cliches and make the film feel modern and original. While the songs always help drive the narrative forward, or give us insight into the characters, unlike some musicals the energy doesn’t when the music stops, with bouyant, engaging dialogue scenes. The soundtrack also features an impressive list of queer artists and allies, including Becky Hill, Todrick Hall, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Chaka Chan, and Dan Gillespie Sell’s band The Feeling.
Jamie decides not to share his ambition to be a drag queen with the careers class, but does confide in his ever-dependable BFF Pritti (Lauren Patel), “a Muslim girl with a Hindu first name”, dedicated to her maths text books with a razor-sharp focus to study medicine at Cambridge. She’s initially taken aback by Jamie’s news, and a little confused about what that might say about his gender identity, but is soon encouraging of his plan for the upcoming prom to be his first public appearance as drag queen; or as he excitedly puts it, “Jamie New, the boy so nice he came out twice!” Patel brings a subtle humour to Pritti, with understated work that beautifully complements her more outwardly confident best friend, bringing a tenderness to their relationship.
Jamie also has support at home, with one of the UK’s finest acting talents, Sarah Lancashire bringing a worldweary warmth, wisdom, and palpable maternal love to Jamie’s accepting and devoted single mum Margaret. While her staunchly loyal best friend Ray, played by fellow Corrie alum Shobna Gulati, is another cheerleader for the teen to be his true self. Gulati, who brings an appealing dry Northern wit to the character, is the only lead performer to reprise their role from the West End production in this movie version of Jamie, while there’s a brief, but memorable cameo from Drag Race royalty Bianca del Rio, who also appeared in the London show.
In one of the film’s many beautifully touching moments, Margaret buys her son his first pair of glittery ruby red vertiginous high heeled shoes (a nice visual nod to Dorothy’s magic slippers) which he quickly masters, strutting along the garden wall and talking out the rubbish on bin day in them for practice.
Every drag queen needs a mentor, and Jamie stumbles across his when he enters the city’s emporium of drag attire, House of Loco, run by Hugo Battersby aka retired drag legend Miss Loco Channel (Richard E. Grant), a self-described “drag couturier to the stars” who sips his tea from a Princess Diana mug. With just six weeks to go until prom night, no drag name, and no clue, Hugo agrees to revive Loco and help whip his drag daughter into shape. We don’t get to see any Rocky-style drag training scenes though, which might have been fun, but that does keep Jamie’s stage debut, a warm up performance before prom at the local social club, a delightful surprise. Grant brings a lifetime of experience to his rich portrayal, and grounds Loco’s sharp tongue and wit in reality. It’s a performance that could see him in the running come awards season. Americans won’t need subtitles to decipher the Sheffield accents, but there are some delightful local idoms peppered throughout Tom MacRae’s screenplay and song lyrics, with “chuffing hellfire” delivered by Richard E. Grant a personal favourite.
In one of the most moving sequences in the film, Hugo opens up to Jamie recalling his drag days in the 80s and early 90s at the height of the AIDS crisis, with friends and loved ones dying around him. With a mix of archive footage and recreated scenes we’re immersed in that time, as Frankie Goes To Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson picks up the accompanying song, This Was Me, from Grant. You’d better make sure you’ve got waterproof mascara on.
We see protestors taking to the streets urging Thatcher’s government to pay attention and fighting against the shameful piece of legislation, Section 28, that was on a stain on the UK for far too many years. There’s even a glimpse of Dan Gillespie Sell’s disability and LGBTQ+ rights activist mother Kathy Gillespie Sells in a protest recreation, while we also see Diana embracing AIDS patients at a time of misinformation and ignorance, and some nightclub dance floors filled with defiant queer joy.
As Jamie learns about the past, the film is enriched by setting his story in the context of queer history and the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights that continues. Initially overwhelmed by what he hears, one thing that Jamie takes away from from his first meeting with Hugo is that “the drag queens in the olden days”—by which he means the 1980s/early 90s!—”weren’t just queens, they were warrior queens”, concluding that drag “is not just a TV show, it’s a revolution”.
Another aspect that lends Jamie real power is its portrayal of internal homophobia and the struggle for self-acceptance that the constraints of growing up in a heteronormative society and familial rejection contribute to. There’s a poignant flashback, with Jamie still tormented by the way his father Wayne (Ralph Ineson) reacted to discovering his son experimenting with makeup and wearing a dress as a young boy, conveying the sting and impact of that his father’s words had on him. The football-loving “man’s man”, unable to accept Jamie for who he is, has decided that now he’s turned 16 he essentially no longer has a son.
Jamie also encounters some present day homophobia in the form of school bully Dean (Samuel Bottomley), though as with all the film’s antagonists’ there’s enough nuance in the writing and the performances to prevent them from being one-dimensional villains. In one gloriously defiant and empowering speech Jamie stands up to Dean, reclaiming his abusive words. It feels like he’s speaking for all of us queer folks who’ve held our tongues at times when we’ve been raging inside, too afraid to speak up for ourselves, when he says to him: “I’m gay, so if I call me gay then being gay isn’t an insult is it? Coz I am bent, and I am queer, and I’m a faggot batty bum boy…” It’s beautifully delivered by Harwood as the fiercely, fabulously, unapologetically femme Jamie. The actor, who has a touch of the Tom Daleys about him—just as adorable and handsome—brings real charisma and heart to the role, and makes for a compelling lead, with a gorgeously expressive, velvety smooth voice, and great range. Added to that, not only does he have perfect comic timing, but he brings emotional depth to Jamie’s inner life. The character isn’t without his flaws, he’s a teenager still finding himself after all, and sometimes lashes out at the wrong people and has a tendency for self-destruction. But in Harwood’s hands we can’t help but root for him.
MacRae takes his teenage protagonists seriously, and has created well-developed, layered supporting characters, allowing everyone their moment to shine, with many of them getting their own songs, like Miss Hedge’s sultry disco number Work of Art.
Clearly made with a lot of love, Jamie is a celebration of the power of drag, mother/child relationships—both drag and biological—and ultimately the strength and bravery it can take to accept ourselves despite the forces, both internal and external, that try to crush our spirits and quash our freedom of expression, and let what’s on the inside shine for the world.
By James Kleinmann
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie opened the 39th annual Outfest LA film festival and premieres globally on Amazon Prime Video on September 17th 2021. In select US theaters from September 10th.
Watch our exclusive interviews from the LA premiere of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Outfest LA 2021: