The tried-and-true template of the individualistic dreamer struggling to rise above the gray prospects of life in regional working-class England gets a glittery paint job in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. To casual observers, this inspirational story of queer self-affirmation — which drops Sept. 17 on Amazon after its U.S. premiere as the opener of Outfest Los Angeles — might seem like a variation on The Prom, switching a teenage drag queen for a lesbian. But the two stage musicals that spawned the movies were developed more or less simultaneously, and Jamie’s closer kin is actually Billy Elliot.
The charms of The Prom onstage were partly trampled in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix adaptation by an overload of not always ideal star casting, which often risked crowding the meek, spotlight-averse young protagonist out of the picture. There’s no risk of that in Jamie, where the title character is played with vivacity, cheeky pluck and a touching undertow of vulnerability by talented discovery Max Harwood. This is unequivocally his film.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
There’s seldom a moment where you don’t know exactly where it’s going, right up to the jubilant outcome and the hey-presto humanization of a homophobic bully. Plus, the vocals have such a processed sound they sometimes make the numbers on Glee seem unplugged. But there’s abundant joy, spirited resilience and sweet humor on tap that should be especially infectious for young LGBTQ audiences, or anyone with experience of outsider stigmatization.
The musical was inspired by the 2011 BBC documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, which followed the story of a teenager from a former mining village in North East England who came out at 14 and ruffled feathers by deciding to attend his high school prom in drag. Both the real Jamie and his devoted mother, Margaret, are featured in lovely footage on the end credits here.
After premiering at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in 2017, the musical moved to London’s West End later that year; it continued playing there to strong business until the enforced hiatus of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, returning earlier this summer. The production comes to the Ahmanson in Los Angeles on Jan. 16, featuring season six RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio in a key supporting role.
The show’s score is by Dan Gillespie Sells, with book and lyrics by Tom MacRae, who adapted the screenplay. Original stage director Jonathan Butterell and choreographer Katie Prince both reprise those roles for the film, a glossy widescreen entertainment that contrasts the drab industrial reality of the Sheffield setting with colorful explosions of fabulousness that burst forth from Jamie’s imagination. The contributions of production designer Jane Levick and costume designer Guy Speranza, especially, are key components of those latter interludes.
What distinguishes the material from many similar gay coming-of-age stories is that coming out isn’t a factor. Jamie has been out and proud for some time, and he responds to the taunts of obnoxious class smartass Dean (Samuel Bottomley) at school by basically saying, “Yeah, I’m gay, what of it?”
His mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire), is a rock of unquestioning love and emotional support, as is her sassy friend Ray (Shobna Gulati, the sole carryover from the stage cast), a surrogate auntie to Jamie. His father, Wayne (Ralph Ineson, last seen wrapped in bark in The Green Knight), is another story. Separated from Margaret and expecting a child with his new partner, he wants nothing more to do with his effeminate son, who continues to crave his approval. Margaret keeps Jamie in the dark about his dad’s coldness, inventing excuses for his absence at birthdays and other special occasions.
Even with that ache of abandonment providing poignancy, there’s not a lot of substantial conflict here. Margaret and Ray throw Jamie a 16th birthday party in the backyard, where his mother presents him with the killer heels he’s been coveting — a glamazon, platform-pump version of Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers from The Wizard of Oz — and at school he has a BFF who adores him and validates his every feeling in studious Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), a Muslim whose hijab brands her as a fellow outsider.
When Jamie confesses his desire to become a drag performer to Pritti, he clarifies it by explaining that he’s not transgender: “I want to be a boy who sometimes wants to be a girl.” The chief obstacle to him fulfilling his destiny as a teenage sensation is careers teacher Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), who is not unsympathetic but feels compelled to steer her Year 11 students toward realistic goals, rather than the usual dreams of pop star, YouTuber, model, footballer or Jedi.
But Jamie’s aspirations are not to be crushed, erupting out of a daydream into song with “You Don’t Even Know It.” The entire class serves as backup singers and dancers as he struts out of the school and into the giddy club-kid world of his rich fantasy life, and from there onto a catwalk with flashbulbs popping.
Another song, “Spotlight,” imagines the upcoming school prom as a disco mirror-ball extravaganza, with Jamie emerging as the resplendent star of the show. “Stop waiting for permission to be you,” Pritti tells him, encouraging his wish to attend the prom in drag.
That plan requires work, given that all he has is the shoes and the attitude. Enter Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), a tart-tongued mentor who runs a drag couture store and frequently revisits his past glory as alter ego Miss Loco Chanelle. He’s also willing to part with a drop-dead red gown from his more svelte days. The one new song added for the movie is Hugo’s “This Was Me” (sung by Frankie Goes to Hollywood vocalist Holly Johnson), a melancholy recap of his backstory of gay rights protests and shattering losses during the AIDS crisis, including the love of his life. (The original stage Jamie, John McCrea, appears as the young Loco in the video of Hugo’s past that accompanies the song.)
What Hugo imparts to Jamie is the knowledge that drag queens are warriors, facing down marginalization, mockery and scorn as creations to be feared, not laughed at. “Shoot first or they’ll shoot you down,” says Hugo. “First rule of drag.” That legacy intimidates Jamie, who feels he lacks the life experience to bring that fierceness. But despite that and other setbacks — a brutal awakening about his father, a sense of betrayal when he learns that his mother lied to him, and the opposition of Miss Hedge, who refuses to let Jamie hijack his classmates’ special night — this is a resolutely upbeat story that can end only one way.
There may be no more over-trafficked theme in contemporary coming-of-age films — or queer-themed musicals — than the power of acceptance. But it no doubt will resonate for kids who have ever been denied it. The fact that the story plays out almost entirely to expectations (OK, the outfit is a sweet surprise) while still maintaining its freshness is due in large part to the natural appeal of Harwood, who makes Jamie’s courage uplifting and even makes his self-absorption endearing. And he definitely can rock a frock. No less vital to the fairy-tale happy ending is Patel’s Pritti, who gets to stand up for herself and put the ultimately insecure Dean in his place in a feisty takedown.
Sells and MacRae’s songs perhaps overload on the triumphant pop anthems of defiant self-worth, which are catchy but become slightly interchangeable, so the few more intimate numbers are a welcome change. The most notable of them involve Lancashire (so terrific in the Yorkshire cop series Happy Valley), whose careworn Margaret is all heart. Her solo, “He’s My Boy,” is an affecting moment of rueful self-reflection, while the counterpart duet with Jamie, “My Man, Your Boy,” satisfyingly reinforces their bond after a regrettable blowup on his part.
The always wonderful Horgan gets a dud of a song in the snarky “Work of Art” (which warps into an homage to Madonna’s “Vogue” video once Jamie takes over). But she deftly walks the line between making Miss Hedge a rigid killjoy and a fair-minded teacher who refuses to favor the well-being of one student over that of the whole class. As for the invaluable Grant, I prefer him in the louche mode of Can You Ever Forgive Me? The writing for Hugo/Loco is just not as memorable, even if the matronly glamour is an amusing mix of soigné style and crumbling fortress. (Kudos to the wig and makeup department.) But Grant brings warmth, battered humanity and dry humor to the drag godmother.
Directing his first feature, Butterell for the most part keeps the energy level chugging along. He strikes a pleasing balance between the kitchen-sink ordinariness of suburban Sheffield and the extravagant escapes of Jamie’s wish-fulfillment, particularly in the large-scale ensemble numbers involving the entire school. Fans of the musical, as well as queer kids and their parents coming to it for the first time, should find plenty of enjoyment.