Movie Musical ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ Is a Flashy and Fun Ode to Non-Conformity
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is an aspirational musical about a Sheffield teenager who wants — or, rather, is destined — to become a drag queen. The script and music — by Tom MacRae, a British multi-hyphenate author-playwright-television writer/producer, and Dan Gillespie-Sells, of the U.K. group The Feeling — has plenty of sentiment yet rarely tips into sentimentality (it’s based on the BBC documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16). The direction, by choreographer/director Jonathan Butterell in his feature film debut, has a devil-may-care frisson that’s as scrappy and resilient as the main characters (the secondary ones are stock). And Max Harwood, in his first film, is a radiant Jamie New (that name!) who knows exactly who he is and what he wants to be, and precisely what heels will accentuate that best.
Sheffield isn’t London, so not everyone is as excited about Jamie’s future job prospects as the soon-to-be Mimi Me. There are the usual homophobic students, a well-meaning but still un-woke high school teacher, an estranged and embarrassed father (Ralph Ineson), a dream of a mother played with an astutely direct delicacy by Sarah Lancashire, and Richard E. Grant (a joy as always), as Hugo Battersby aka Loco Chanelle, Jamie’s new drag mother.
The film is a confection — lighted for impact by Christopher Ross — that stops for a few surprising emotional interludes and doesn’t get mealy-mouthed when it comes to Wayne New’s neanderthal rejection of his son. It’s just as ugly and hurts just as much as the artists intend here, though it’s not lingered over. The film’s spirit is Jamie’s — both the character and the actor who transforms him — and it rests lightly about Max Harwood’s slender, elegant shoulders.
The opening number, “Don’t Even Know It,” is set in a drab high school classroom and is Jamie’s inner response to Miss Hedge’s (Sharon Horgan) harangue about thinking smaller when trying to find a career path. The social media influencers in the class will have nothing of this nonsense, and neither will Jamie, a star amongst the peasants. When Harwood sashays across the classroom desktops and into a steamy ’80s-inspired nightclub packed with queer kids in jubilant abandon, you’re witnessing that old Hollywood cliché, the star that’s born. Like it or not, it’s thrilling every time.
Harwood is not the entire show here. He has a great foil in his BFF, Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), the Muslim girl as much of an outsider in Sheffield as the effeminate Jamie. Sharon Horgan is the vinegary voice of reason as Miss Hedge until she has to also assume the mantel of misdirected school bureaucrat who forbids Jamie to come to the prom in anything but the mandated gender dress code (no dress, girl). As tiresome as that part of the film is, she (rightly) congratulates Jamie on his ultimate sartorial choices, and some of Horgan’s audience good will returns.
Sarah Lancashire — from the great U.K. series Happy Valley — is transcendent as Jamie’s mum, Margaret New, who has set the bar here with her portrayal of the most supportive, accepting parent of all time without once making me want to reach up to the screen to smack the treacle off of its face. The song she sings — first, alone, as “He’s My Boy” and then with Jamie as “My Man, Your Boy” — could have bombarded the last act with an emotional overabundance, yet Lancashire and Harwood deliver this mother-son love song simply and eloquently.
And then there is Richard E. Grant, an actor currently in the midst of a renaissance (if it had been up to me, I would have given him the Supporting Actor Academy Award for Can You Ever Forgive Me?), visibly having a blast as Hugo Battersby aka Loco Chanelle. The character, much like the actor, has an enormous heart, and while I don’t completely buy him in drag, his attitude comes correct in all the important ways.
I don’t mean to overpraise here. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the film, is a minor triumph — not the game-changer Cabaret was or the tone-deaf adaptation of last year’s The Prom (not to mention the hullabaloo around Ben Platt in the forthcoming Dear Evan Hansen). It’s a breezy ode to non-conformity that’s as pretty as a big red glitter heel and reminds us of why we were drawn to Hollywood film musicals in the first place: for the glitz, the inauthenticity of a world where people break into song just so we can understand what they’re feeling, and the dazzling showmanship of craftspeople who truly want you to have a good time. It’s a frolic. That it’s about a gay kid whose passion is drag and not one ounce of homophobia or ignorance is going to stop him from achieving his dreams of fabulousness is simply the frivolous dollop of frosting on a new wig that makes the difference.