by Tom Beasley
The playful opening text of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels a lot like a manifesto by which we should all live our lives. “This story really happened,” it reads, “and then we added the singing and dancing”.
It’s a statement of intent for the movie which follows, adapted from the blockbuster West End musical – itself inspired by 2011 BBC documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. Rather unusually, the core creative team of the stage production are intimately involved again this time, with original writer Tom MacRae penning the script and Jonathan Butterell – who directed the show – making his movie debut at the helm. The result is a joyous, explosive adaptation which feels faithful to the source material, but never beholden to it.
Newcomer Max Harwood takes on the title role as teenager Jamie New, who’s determined to become a star and break free of the homophobic world of his Sheffield school. With the help of his supportive single mum Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) and best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel), he decides to pursue a career as a drag performer. He secures an outfit and a first gig from veteran queen Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant) which leads to, well, everybody talking about him.
It would have been easy, given the personnel involved, for Jamie on film to be almost identical to Jamie on stage. Instead, though, Butterell takes advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by the big screen and spreads his cinematic wings. The rambunctious arrogance of opening number And You Don’t Even Know It sees a dreary classroom session segue into a neon-hued performance fantasy, aided by a shifting aspect ratio. Roof-raising ballad The Wall In My Head, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to delve via flashback into Jamie’s dysfunctional relationship with his loathsome father (Ralph Ineson).
Harwood shoulders the considerable challenge of the title role with exceptional flair given it’s his maiden outing on the big screen. He handles the singing with aplomb, but also navigates the intense emotions of the character and the myriad tonal shifts of the narrative. He’s helped by Lancashire bringing real depth to the role of Jamie’s devoted mother – and belting out a killer ballad of her own – and another stellar screen newcomer in the shape of Lauren Patel.
As the quietly studious Pritti, Patel is the more reserved counterpoint to Jamie’s flamboyant bombast, building him up when he needs to be but also taking him down a few pegs at times. Her comedy timing is tremendous and she gets many of the script’s best lines, including her terrific summation of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst with the words: “she were like Beyonce back in the day”. It’s tough to argue. Harwood is, of course, centre stage throughout the movie, but Patel deserves just as many plaudits.
The other key member of the cast is Richard E. Grant, who brings raw charismatic intensity to the role of a long-time drag journeyman forged amid the cultural tumult of the 1980s. Grant conveys the passionate performer within him, as well as the world-weary resignation of a man accustomed to the never-ending prejudice and persecution of homophobia. The character’s main song from the stage production has been switched here for a newly penned, Pet Shop Boys inspired ballad entitled This Was Me, which delves into the rise of LGBTQ+ party culture in the 80s and the subsequent climate of fear brought about by Section 28 and the AIDS crisis. It’s a goosebumps-inducing, standout sequence which feels all the more potent in the wake of this year’s exceptional TV series It’s a Sin.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie isn’t a mould-breaker in terms of its story; it’s a fairly conventional feel-good British tale when you strip it down to its bones. But with the level of energy and invention Butterell brings, it’s impossible not to be swept up in its music-driven tale of triumph over adversity and being yourself at all costs. “I’m not a superhero, I’m just a boy in a dress,” Jamie declares during a potent final scene. This movie shows it’s entirely possible to be both – and to look truly fabulous in the process.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is out on Amazon Prime 17th September