Jamie New is a 16-year-old gay kid who doesn’t quite fit in at his high school. He has dreams of being a drag queen, something that inspires laughs of derision and casual homophobia among others. But he’s got allies, including his loving mum, a circle of excited friends, and a drag mentor in the form of Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant). Together, they’re going to create a sensation that nobody will be able to ignore.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a minor sensation in the U.K. Based on a BBC Three documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, the musical became a rare born-and-bred British hit in an industry where Broadway transfers still rule the roost. It was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Musical but lost to something called Hamilton, and will triumphantly return to the London stage next year, as well as make its American debut in Los Angeles. For those who can’t wait that long, the big-screen adaptation drops on Amazon Prime this week, sold to the platform by Disney after its theatrical release was canceled. In a year chock full of major musical releases, from the upcoming West Side Story to In the Heights to (eek) Dear Evan Hansen, can the scrappy British show that could make a splash?
This is a familiar formula: the underdog dreamer who fights their way to the top with sparkle and inspirational flair. Jamie (Max Harwood) is a working-class kid English with a paper route, bleach-blonde hair, and dreams to perform in drag. This isn’t a coming-out story. Jamie’s out and proud. But drag seems like the ‘step too far’ for his school, his distant and unaccepting father, and a hell of a lot of people who think they’re more progressive than they actually are. For all of the buzzword-friendly proclamations in the media that we’re a super queer-friendly society now, it’s worth reminding everyone once in a while of the reality. We could certainly use more of that in the U.K., where our new equalities minister seems to be a staggering homophobe and transphobe, and the terrifying empowerment of the anti-trans hate movement has embedded itself in everyday life. Just check out the sheer number of reviews and tweets claiming that they ‘didn’t believe’ Jamie would have a hard time being a gay kid who wants to do drag in the 21st century.
It’s rather delightful to watch something this unabashedly British. Not only that, but it’s not posh or London-centric. It’s full of, gasp, working-class accents and blue humor and beloved non-RADA character actors having a ball, from Sarah Lancashire to Adeel Akhtar. The camp aspects are all thoroughly British too, which will please those of us who thought Drag Race U.K. wasn’t doing its fair share of the lifting on that front. Richard E. Grant is doing a lot of work here and it’s ever so delightful. He’s always been imbued with a natural sort of camp, especially at his booziest, and here he’s channeling it into a performance halfway between Lily Savage and his character in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lyrically speaking, it’s also extremely British, clumsy rhyming moments and all. The earworms are numerous but not particularly sophisticated. It’s no surprise the music comes from a pop musician, The Feeling lead singer Dan Gillespie Sells (ask your local British millennial for more information).
The transfer from stage to screen isn’t wholly smooth. Some of the jokes call for a full house of eager laughing, such as a moment when Jamie’s best friend says he’s like Emmeline Pankhurst, who was ‘Beyoncé back in the day.’ Director Jonathan Butterell, who developed the show for the stage, brings some interesting moments of flair to musical numbers like ‘Spotlight’ and the very Madonna-esque ‘Work of Art,’ but tends to rely on some more trite cinematic language. Flashbacks to Jamie’s youth and his strained relationship with his father have that grey tint that makes you wonder if the sepia tone filter was unavailable. It’s broad but not without sincere impact. Hugo sings a song about his prime drag years during the Britain of Thatcher, Section 28, and AIDS, and it’s a Pet Shop Boys-esque number of protest and identity. It’s not hard to see why this kind of earnestness may not work for some, but dammit, it did for me. Real footage of the queer scene of the ’80s, lives lost in the fight for freedom, and of Princess Diana meeting AIDS patients hit like a freight train. The fight’s not over, kids, not even close.
A teacher claims there’s a line between individuality and disruption, but for a hell of a lot of people, those two qualities are mutually exclusive. Hugo and his drag comrades impart on Jamie that gender fluidity and expression is the sign of a warrior, a moment of rebellion against a rigid society that, for all of its cries of progress, is still quick to nip in the bud anything it deems unruly. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is broad and very mainstream and clearly designed to appeal to a wide, family-friendly audience, but that doesn’t mean its central ideas are diluted. The film may lack the grit some desire and it is definitely not aiming to dissect the intricacies of LGBTQ+ life in modern Britain, but it is a stridently working-class queer story, and that means something to a lot of people. Sometimes, you just need a simple uplifting story, and right now, I can imagine that this particular one will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to so many faces.
Also, make more working-class stories, British film industry. It’s f**king ridiculous that this movie is an exception to a broken and outdated rule.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is available to watch on Amazon Prime as of September 17, 2021.
Header Image Source: Amazon Studios/Searchlight