Exclusive Interview: Holly Johnson on performing This Was Me in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie “it’s a very emotional moment in film”

One of most poignant, moving sequences in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the screen adaptation of the hit West End musical now streaming globally on Amazon Prime Video, features a bittersweet, rousing new song, This Was Me, written specifically for the film by Dan Gillespie Sells with lyrics by Tom MacRae, the original show’s co-creators.

As the film’s lead character Jamie New (Max Harwood)—based on the experiences of real-life figure Jamie Campbell—turns sixteen and sets about exploring how to become a drag queen, he encounters Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant) who runs Sheffield’s only emporium of drag attire, House of Loco. Recognizing Jamie’s passion, Hugo agrees to bring his own legendary drag persona, Miss Loco Channel, out of retirement to help mentor the teen in the run up to his debut performance. Taking on the role of drag mother, Hugo recalls his heyday as an entertainer in the 1980s, and what the queer community was up against; Thatcher, Section 28, and far too many friends and loved ones tragically lost to AIDS—including Freddie Mercury at the start of the next decade—along with the compassion shown by Princess Diana. We’re immersed in that time visually by a mix of archive footage and recreated scenes of protests, hospital rooms, and nightclub dance floors filled with defiant joy, with a young Loco Channel on the front lines.

Richard E. Grant in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. © 2021 Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l., Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Channel Four Television Corporation.

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. What makes the number all the richer and more powerful is that once Grant begins the song the vocals are picked by one of the defining voices of the 1980s, Frankie Goes To Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson, who had three number one UK singles in 1984 alone, with the enduring classics Two Tribes, The Power of Love, and Relax. On This Was Me, Johnson delivers a stirring, colourful vocal performance filled with lived experience and the wisdom of a queer elder passing on the baton to the next generation.

With the film’s soundtrack album—which also features Chaka Khan, The Feeling, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Becky Hill, and Todrick Hall—now available, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Holly Johnson about how he came to record the track, his memories of the 1980s, and the queer culture that’s influenced him.

Max Harwood and Richard E. Grant in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. © 2021 Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l., Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Channel Four Television Corporation.

Johnson had initially been approached by the musical’s producers about playing the role of Hugo in the West End. “I went to see the show a couple of times and thought it was great”, shares the singer, “but I didn’t feel at the time that I could physically do the quite demanding role on stage for eight performances a week. I’m not a musical theatre performer historically and I thought, that looks exhausting! Even though it is a great role, and it was great to be asked, I decided that I couldn’t take it on at that moment in time.”

Holly Johnson, 1989. Photograph by Trevor Leighton. © Trevor Leighton.

When Johnson heard that a film adaptation was in the works, he reconnected with the producers offering his services as a vocalist. “Then I forgot about it and out of the blue, Dan, who I’d met before a few times, asked me to do the song. I practiced it a bit at home and then went into Air Studios in North London last year and spent an afternoon singing my heart out. At that point I didn’t know it would be a duet of sorts featuring Richard E. Grant, so I sang the whole song. When they played me the final version with Grant on the track, I thought, wow, that really adds something to the song. The texture of Richard E. Grant’s voice and the theatricality of it adds another dimension to it.”

The film’s director, Jonathan Butterell—who also directed the original stage production—was on hand to guide Johnson during the recording session. “I got some lovely direction from him in the vocal booth. He explained to me his view of the song within the film, that it was all very much about passing the baton on to the young man. That was a lovely touch that he sort of whispered into my ear. Dan was quite demanding in the studio which was great. I’d asked to sing the song in a slightly higher key than it was sent to me to get the full power and brightness out of my voice, but it worked out really well and I am really happy with the performance and the moment that is created within film. It’s brilliant. I’m really excited about it actually and I’m so happy to have done it. As a fan of the show I was very honoured to be asked because it’s a great song that Dan and Tom wrote. It deepens the story and gives it a seriousness in actual fact. It is a very emotional moment in film”.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax 12″ picture disc featuring Juicy Lucy (center). Photograph by AJ Barratt.

Being shown an early rough-cut of the visuals for the sequence also helped convince Johnson to become involved. “What completely sold it to me was the inclusion of Juicy Lucy, who was a kind of member of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and came on our first PA tour for Relax and was also in the first Relax video. You see her dancing or moving in closeup in the archive footage and it was like a sign saying you must do this song. It was very emotional for me when I saw Juicy Lucy. His name was Ronnie Heyfron and he was one of the early ones to pass away due to AIDS. He has his own panel on the NAMES Project quilt that I saw recently at the Food Chain exhibition of the UK quilt. I was also moved by the footage of Princess Diana, who publicly touched and hugged patients in hospital at the time. That really got me.”

The song’s reference to the death of Freddie Mercury (‘Kept on partying till ’91, until that fateful day’), paired with an archive television news report, also resonated deeply with Johnson who was told that he was HIV positive that same year. “I was diagnosed in the October of 1991 and while I was still reeling that whole drama in the press with Freddie’s death unravelled before me. It was a very difficult moment in my life and I can’t really go there.” On being a longterm survivor Holly adds, “we’re very rare creatures now.”

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1984. Photograph by Peter Ashworth. © Peter Ashworth.

Earlier this year a national conversation in the UK media reflecting back upon the AIDS epidemic was sparked by its depiction in Russell T Davies’ hit 1980s London set miniseries It’s A Sin. “I found It’s A Sin very difficult to watch”, says Johnson, “and my partner only lasted two episodes. I forced myself to watch the whole thing and it brought back many different emotions because I really was there in London, visiting people in hospital and experiencing those things, but they were actually much worse than how they were depicted in the drama.”

Unlike Hugo, the character he channels in the song, Johnson was never drawn to dressing in drag himself. “It wasn’t my ambition to be a drag queen” he shares, “I wanted to be like Lindsay Kemp, which is very much a male persona, rather than a female one. I knew people who dressed in drag, but I didn’t feel the same as them.”

Holly Woodlawn outside New York’s Hotel Chelsea in 1971. Photograph by Gerard Malanga.

“Dyeing my hair and wearing makeup to school in 1974 in Liverpool was taking your life in your hands really”, Johnson recalls. “But my wearing of makeup was an expression of otherness. I was completely seduced by T Rex and Marc Bolan and David Bowie and Lou Reed, and all those things happening in my early teenage years. And of course the Andy Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, who I took my name from, was the most amazing trans person. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a woman in particular or present myself as a drag queen, but more as something other. That’s the only way I can describe it really. I felt, why shouldn’t I express my individuality in the same way as David Bowie and Marc Bolan did? Those are the kind of thoughts you have as a teenager.”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood (Nasher Nash; Paul Rutherford; Holly Johnson; Peter Gill; Mark O’Toole). Photograph by John Stoddart, 1982. © John Stoddart.

“I’d seen Warhol’s Trash with Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro, and I’d met Jayne County when I was 17 in Eric’s Club in Liverpool. So all these disparate characters had educated me in a sense about visual representation and the importance of image. All these influences accrued within me when the vision for Frankie Goes to Hollywood was formed. It needed to be a step further than the Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow and the New York Dolls. It needed to be harder and tougher and faster.”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood on set during the shoot of the first video for Relax at London’s Hope and Anchor pub. Photograph by John Stoddart. © John Stoddart.

Thanks to the visuals that accompanied the release of Relax, Frankie Goes to Hollywood are often associated with leather. “It was a gay identity created by Tom of Finland”, shares Johnson, “but I’d been through many stages before I got into the leather look. I was in a band called Big in Japan where I had very short bleached blond hair and wore copious amounts of eye makeup. It was all part of my development.”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood (Nasher Nash; Paul Rutherford; Holly Johnson; Peter Gill; Mark O’Toole). Photograph by John Stoddart, 1982. © John Stoddart.

“Frankie Goes to Hollywood weren’t slavish to the Tom of Finland identity and we very much sold it to the heterosexual members of the band as being a Mad Max look. That was very influential, as well as the whole Vivienne Westwood Seditionary, what’s called punk now. I lived through all of those things as they happened and was influenced accordingly.”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood on set during the shoot of the first video for Relax at London’s Hope and Anchor pub. Photograph by John Stoddart. © John Stoddart.

Looking back on being so visibly queer in the 1980s, Johnson offers, “It was a form of activism in a way although it wasn’t specifically through the lens of gay lib. It was, ‘This is the way I want to be and I’m not asking for your acceptance’. It was an in-your-face, up yours that said, ‘If you don’t like it, you’re not worth knowing as a human being.’ It was more confrontational I think. It wasn’t framed within the political mores of the time, which was the Gay Liberation Front.”

John Hurt in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), directed by Jack Gold based on Quentin Crisp’s memoir.

When it comes to the queer culture that influenced him as teenager, Johnson recalls “The Naked Civil Servant about Quintin Crisp made a huge impact in the 1970s. Around the same time in 1975 a terrible documentary called Johnny Go Home was broadcast, about runaways to London who were dragged into a web of rent boys and the underbelly of penny arcades in Piccadilly and the Meat Rack. Both those films had the same subtext because Quentin Crisp trawled up and down the Dilly plying his trade as a young man. Coming very close to each other, those two moments were really pivotal in my development and awareness of LGBTQ issues.”

By James Kleinmann

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is streaming worldwide on Amazon Prime Video. The soundtrack, featuring This Was Me performed by Holly Johnson, is available everywhere now, listen here.

For more on Holly Johnson, visit his official website and follow him on Twitter @TheHollyJohnson, Facebook, and subscribe to his YouTube channel.

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