When you think about a movie musical, a lot of truly iconic productions come to mind. From the Gene Kelly classic like Singing in the Rain (1952), through the 70s and 80s tortured showstoppers like Grease (1978) and Fame (1980) and even onto the modern exclamation marks of Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Mamma Mia! (2008) ー there’s a lot to live up to. Though I would be pressed to say that this film has managed to reach those dizzying heights, some moments do ー like the eponymous Jamie that everyone is talking about ー stand out from the crowd.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Jonathan Butterell, 2021) is based on a BBC Three documentary about an aspiring teen drag queen in Sheffield. At the age of sixteen, Jamie is already pretty remarkable: he’s out as gay at school and wears his identity like a badge of honour (or, indeed, of Pride). Now, Jamie has decided he wants to be a drag queen and to go in drag to prom. He has to break this news to his school and his parents: he lives with his mum, who is supportive, but rarely sees his dad, who is not. Inevitably, there are a few more bumps on the road. Does he have enough people in his corner ー his mother, his best friend Pritti and an adoptive drag mother Loco Chanelle ー to get him through?
(This is a musical, so you can probably guess the answer.)
Music and stylisation
One of the first things that struck me about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is that it is very much a musical, in every sense of the word. It is clear that the songs were written for this show, and they advance the story. The music is the plot.
The film follows a few musical tropes: “Wall In My Head”, for example, is your classic “I want” song ー where the lead character in a musical sets out what they are looking to achieve in this narrative, normally in ballad form ー in a typical second position (diegetically at least). Character and plot progression are quintessentially speedy: Jamie’s BFF Pritti goes from “ew, boys wearing heels is weird” to “you should be a drag queen at prom” in the space of about forty five seconds. The film even has that bizarre surrealist song that seems out of place and makes no sense to the plot (“Work of Art”) ー very much in the same vein as the fourteen-minute ballet dream sequence from 1955 American classic Oklahoma! (though thankfully quite a bit shorter!)
Diversity doesn’t feel like tokenism in this film, and the characters and actors coming from a broad ethnic background only enhances the story. For instance, Pritti sings a song to hype up Jamie called “It Means Beautiful” in which she tells him that Jamie is a version of the name Jamil, which means beautiful in Arabic. Quite honestly, the film is a much-needed win for people named Pritti everywhere.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to reach the acclaim of so many iconic movie musicals; after a first watch (which is, to be fair, how many times most people watch a movie) a few of the songs were forgettable. Costuming was mostly unremarkable (for a film about drag queens at least), but did at least feel intentional: for example, in an early imagined catwalk sequence, Jamie wears a rhinestoned blue blazer with exaggerated sleeves. I read this as a take on a school uniform, showing the limitations of adolescent fantasies.
Acting and characterisation
A combination of stellar casting and some really great acting made this film a smooth watch. Sarah Lanashire as Margaret (Jamie’s mother) and Max Harwood as Jamie carried the film as the two leading actors. Both had particularly wonderful facial expressions ー like mother, like son, after all! Sharon Horgan also shines as the hot but villainous homophobic teacher.
Though drag queens were invited to the premiere and cast in minor roles (special shout out to Anna Phylactic and her clown white) ー plus, the story is based on a real-life drag queen Jamie Campbell aka Fifi La True, who appears in a cameo as “door bitch” ー it did seem a little consolatory. In the stage production, Bianca Del Rio played the leading queen Loco Chanelle; in this film, it was straight actor Richard E Grant. In fairness, he played the role of bitter old camp queen pretty well, but it felt like a missed opportunity to give a drag queen actor ー or at least a queer actor ー a significant role in a high-profile film like this one.
One suitably touching sequence during the song “This Was Me” shows Loco Chanelle as a young queen living through the 80s and the AIDS crisis, which really adds to the poignancy of the story. Grant plays the queen remembering her tragic past well, and we do get the sense of how much has changed. It felt tasteful, faithful and was smoothly done for the most part. And, since we’re talking about the AIDS crisis in the UK, it should surprise you that we get a shot of Princess Diana in the montage ー there’s no escaping the poor woman, even here! Just be glad I’m not reviewing Diana The Musical…
Biggest Gay Mood: pushing a bike uphill instead of riding it
(This is actually the First Gay Mood in the film (less than two minutes in) since there were far too many to choose the biggest)
I left school less than a decade ago, and yet it feels like so much has changed in that short time. I’m constantly in awe of people who can be this gay in school (and don’t forget that Jamie was based on a real-life character, so there really was at least one person being this gay in school). Gays famously love attention ー Jamie is even given the drag name Mimi Me ー and when it gets to the point in the film where everybody really is talking about Jamie (or rather Mimi), she’s in her element.
Britney Line Time: “Notice me, take my hand”
Loco Chanelle convinces Jamie he needs to do a show before he can go to prom in drag, in order to build up his confidence. While I appreciate the theatre of it all, Mimi’s debut stage appearance is far too good for a first time in drag. I also wish they would have shown her getting that wig glued down, because it never would have stayed on that well if it were plopped on as haphazardly as what we saw on screen.
She learns to read from the other drag queens at the club, and when she tries it out herself at school the next day, it’s a little embarrassing. Honestly, white twinks (and I count myself in this) do that a lot, so I wasn’t mad at it. This is the queer representation I’ve been looking for all along!
Ultimately, while also being an aspiring drag queen, I appreciated Jamie’s characterisation first and foremost as a teenager who makes mistakes; at times, he’s just a hurt young boy lashing out at the wrong person. Harwood’s portrayal, while suitably fierce at the right moments, was strongest in moments of vulnerability. Here, we see Jamie for who he is: quite simply, a human being struggling through the hardest years of their life.
Social commentary and symbolism
Just like the video montage with Loco Chanelle, there seemed to be a few deliberate nods to queer legacy that came before: Jamie’s red heels, for example, were reminiscent of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Of course, it was all situated in context: Jamie strutted in those red stilettos down a garden wall at a birthday party filled with “glittery plastic” (the gays do love glittery plastic). That’s camp.
This combination of past and future legacy led to emotionally effective storytelling in how it makes us reflect on our own lives. This is, surely, part of the function of cinema.
Top Tip: If you two have a solid relationship, this is a great film to watch with your mum.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie comes close to hitting some problematic tropes, but just manages to teeter on the edge. For example, with Pritti and Jamie’s close friendship, we see hints that she might have a crush on him, following the dejected woman trope that so many gay male-focused stories end up hitting. (It’s worth noting that I might just be reading too much into this; I have been burned many times before.) The school bully, Dean Paxton, almost falls into the “secretly gay and attracted to the boy he bullies” (looking at you Sex Education Season 2) ー but, once again, it’s not quite clear enough to be mad at. I guess everybody’s doing more than just talking about Jamie.
One trope ー perhaps more stereotype, or indeed objective truth ー we did hit is that men are mostly awful. Jamie’s dad is a snivelling weasel of a man for not wanting to see his son. He’s too much of a coward to even tell Jamie himself, and makes his mum do it instead. Fortunately, she more than makes up for it: he asks her “Do you ever wish I was just normal?” and she responds with a confident no almost before he can even finish the question.
Once again, everything progresses faster in a musical, and Jamie reaches the stage, after going out in drag, of releasing that the costume, the make-up and the sequins makes him more confident than he is in his everyday presentation. Loco Chanelle even says it herself: it’s much more difficult (and therefore braver) to wear a dress as a boy (or whatever) than it is to go out in drag. Personally, I feel more nervous walking down the street in everyday femme clothing than I do in drag. In drag, there is a mask, a performative element ー an excuse as to why you’re wearing what you’re wearing. That’s a lot easier of an explanation as to why you’re wearing a dress than “because I like it”.
Maybe I’m already a bitter old queen myself in my early twenties but I did draw the line at Max Harwood ー a beautiful young twink with a full hairline and flawless skin ー complaining about feeling wholly unattractive. It made me think of when Courtney Act released a song called Ugly.
The nods to the original story ー real life Jamie’s cameo, as well as headline appearance in the post-credits montage and subsequent premiere events ー as well as to the original musical ー previous Jamies Layton Williams and John McCrea as dancer and young Loco respectively ー didn’t go unnoticed. Thus, though I appreciate that everything is heightened in the setting of a musical (and I think that is valid in this film), it is in connection with the real world that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie shines most brightly. Seeing ourselves (or our loved ones) on screen is the purest proof of the magic of cinema.