Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which is based on the broadway musical of the same name, which in turn is based on a documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, owes a debt to some of the best British films ever released; Kes, Billy Elliot & The Full Monty. It follows the same elements of working class outcasts finding their place in a society that doesn’t accept them. Whereas Ballet, Chippendale dancing and Kestrel training were the focuses of the films mentioned above, this story revolves around a 16 year old gay teenager who tries to achieve his dream of becoming a Drag Queen. While the aforementioned films are all brilliantly transgressive in their approach to masculinity and Thatcherite Britain, the explicitly progressive focus propels the time-tested tradition into the 21st Century.
The Broadway musical became a sensation here in the UK, you could barely walk through London without seeing advertisements for the stage play, and it has been running consistently since it’s debut in 2017 (as well as having international tours in Seoul, Japan, and Los Angeles). I never managed to catch the stage version, despite wanting to, so when I first found out about the film version I was excited to finally experience it. But my excitement soon diminished purely due to the complete lack of marketing the film received (in fact I only found out it was coming to Amazon Prime at the beginning of the week).
Helming this film in his feature film debut is Jonathan Butterell, who directed the stage version from it’s premiere in Sheffield. Butterell is a solid choice, as he clearly knows the story and how to direct it better than anyone else, and for a first time directorial effort, Butterell crafts a superb movie musical that outshines his competitors (at least from this year) in knowing how to transfer the theatre magic onto the screen. Butterell takes full advantage of the medium, using spectacular set design, editing, costuming and camerawork to transcend the broadway past and relish in the cinematic qualities.
Leading the film is newcomer Max Harwood, who captures the meek, unassured Jamie genuinely while also embodying the fierceness as Jamie’s own confidence grows. Vocally Harwood’s performance is wonderful, bringing the character into the songs whether it’s the confidence and showmanship or the fragile vulnerability that we also get to see. If I was a betting man I’d wager that Harwood has a great career ahead of him because the range that comes across in this film really shows a lot of prowess. Even just in the ‘Work of Art’ sequence, Harwood manages to flip from an awkward, on-the spot, performance that the song starts with, into one fully imbued with confidence and charisma. Filling out the supporting cast, Richard E. Grant, playing a retired Drag Queen who serves as Jamie’s mentor, steals the show in typical Richard E. Grant fashion. Effervescently charming and able to switch from humour to tear-jerking performance at the drop of a hat, even though he doesn’t have much screen time outside of Harwood it’s easily the most memorable performance of the film. Sarah Lancashire, playing Jamie’s supportive mother, gives an admirable performance but compared to some of her other work (I’m a big fan of Happy Valley and her performance in that is superb), it’s not particularly noteworthy. Finally Lauren Patel, who plays Jamie’s best friend, starts off somewhat weak in her performance, and I can’t say I was impressed by her vocal ability, but as the film goes on she comes into her own and has a great moment near the end at the school’s prom.
One element of the film that I had issue with was some of the cinematography choices, while the musical numbers were all really great and well filmed, it often feels like less attention was given to the reality-based scenes. For some reason this is especially true in the latter half of the film, where certain moments have a shallow depth of field for seemingly no reason, leaving backgrounds fussy and out of focus in a way that doesn’t serve the film and ultimately distracts from the scene itself. This definitely conveys a level of amateurishness that can be attributed to the lack of experience behind the camera, but ultimately it’s a minor defect in the film that I’m sure for the wider audience will hardly cause issues.
The film carries a whole lot of heart and charm with it, it pays homage to the history of drag, albeit fleetingly, in a very poignant way, while also reinforcing the idea that the act of drag isn’t just “men dressing as women” but a statement that carries power with it. While the film definitely veers into cringey territory, it feels very sincere in it’s message. This is especially true in the climax of the film when Jamie, despite being told not to, turns up to his prom in a dress and his classmates come together to support him. It’s very much cliche and contrived, but everything leading up to this moment feels so authentic in the message of self acceptance and being proud of who you are, that despite the dialogue not being the most well written it still feels heartwarming and you can’t help but smile as it all unfolds. The film also avoids certain cliches that I thought it would fall into, especially regarding Jamie’s father who has disowned him due to his sexuality and passion for Drag. This subplot, for me, shows a remarkable maturity as it seems like it’ll end up in a traditional “homophobic father realises he was wrong” ending, instead it gives power to the loving and accepting single mother while also giving power to Jamie in accepting that his life is better off without yearning for his father’s attention. A message that is all too important in a society that pushes the idea of “blood being thicker than water”.
In many ways Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels like a return to old-school musicals in all the best ways. It doesn’t take any particular risks but it doesn’t need to, it doesn’t try to subvert tropes because it embraces those tropes. It’s a movie for musical lovers but doesn’t rest on its laurels and actually embraces everything the film format has to offer to deliver a charming, satisfying and empowering story about acceptance and identity.