There’s an atypical lead at the center of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. A reed-thin teenage boy with platinum blonde hair and the confidence of someone who’s known his sexuality at a very young age, Jamie New may be the most unabashedly queer leading man in musical theater history.
It seems odd to admit, in a way. Long have gay men sought the comforting shelter of the musical form, but a lot of the fascination has been projection onto the genre’s leading ladies: Barbra Streisand purring “Hello, gorgeous” in Funny Girl, Judy Garland clicking her heels together in The Wizard of Oz. Few and far between are the musicals that bring the LGBTQIA+ experience to the forefront.
That’s not to say Jamie could ever possibly be expected to represent an entire community. On the contrary, he’s but one 16-year-old growing up in Sheffield, England, who possesses the burning desire to be a drag queen. He’s played by newcomer Max Harwood in a debut performance as winning as it is cloyingly sweet, a description that could also accompany the whole of this well-intentioned but wobbly movie musical.
Based on the West End hit stage show of the same name, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie features a screenplay by the show’s book writer Tom MacRae, as well as many of the songs from the show’s hit-or-miss score by Dan Gillespie Sells and MacRae. The film is also based on a true story highlighted in the 2011 television documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. Footage of that BBC doc plays over the end credits, and its raw, verite style made this viewer wish the film that preceded it was itself an earthier, more textured look at this extraordinary little story.
The source material hinges on the contrast of watching a confident young gay man strutting around in heels in a working class, football-loving English town. It’s a juxtaposition that’s been mined better in prior films, most notably Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot, but it’s one Jamie’s director, Jonathan Butterell, bizarrely eschews, leaning full tilt into candy-colored pastels and a glossy, Hallmark greeting card vibe. Admittedly, that’s partially baked into the story. Sure, Jamie has to deal with a disapproving father (The Green Knight’s Ralph Ineson) and a school bully (Samuel Bottomley). But he also possesses the world’s most supportive mother (Sarah Lancashire) and a friend who only seems to exist to “Yas queen” him (Lauren Patel)
That sunny picture of acceptance is great to see, particularly for young queer kids, but it also removes any semblance of conflict from the film. And unlike bright-eyed musicals before it like Hairspray, Jamie just doesn’t have the satisfying ingredients to coast along on a giddy wave of feel-good charm. Jamie’s “it’s all about me” vibe, where everyone else is “blah, blah, and you don’t even know it,” couldn’t be further from the warm, inclusivity of a Tracy Turnblad, and it feels unnecessarily confrontational a sentiment when he’s surrounded by classmates who seem to “stan” his every move. Aside from a few earworms, the score is overflowing with an abundance of the type of hollow pop tunes that plague the post-Pasek and Paul contemporary musical theater world. And the script relies more on platitudes than plotting, with little discernible wit and none of the ferocious, biting sense of humor one would expect in a film about drag queens.
Richard E. Grant, as the main queen in question (Jamie’s self-appointed drag mentor), isn’t even the scene-stealer one may hope for. No denying he’s exceptional at playing gay men of a certain age (he should’ve won the Oscar for his turn in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?), but one can’t help but imagine a Joel Grey, Andre De Shields, or Sir Ian McKellen bringing a touch more gravity to the proceedings. Even Jamie’s drag queen debut lacks the “star is born” chutzpah such a coronation should have. The best written number is as far from glitz and glam as possible, Lancashire’s mum’s eleven o’clock “I’m gonna sit down in my kitchen and sing about my son” power ballad “He’s My Boy.” Unabashedly sentimental but also possessing an undeniable hook and an absolutely golden key change, it’s a number that ushers in a new era of Mom Rock, one which I hope middle-aged women will be singing at karaoke bars for the rest of eternity.
Lancashire herself is the warm, gooey heart of the film, a sweetly sincere portrait of support that shines in her scenes with Harwood. It’s unfortunate, then, that Butterell intercuts her biggest moment with an extended sequence of Jamie going on a drinking bender and storming a soccer field, a juxtaposition that only serves to inhibit both scenes and one which is indicative of his heavy cutting editing style.
He shows some real inventiveness in Jamie’s first number “And You Don’t Even Know It,” a grade-A banger which he smartly stages like a pop music video, with Jamie strutting his stuff down a runway cheered on by adoring fans. Alas, afterwards, his musical staging devolves into the disappointing vein of Ryan Murphy’s in last year’s The Prom; the screen is aglow with a colorful wash whenever people start singing: pink if it’s a happy moment, blue if it’s sad.
He saves his most inspired moment for “This Was Me,” a new song for the film which serves as the introduction of Grant’s character. Popping an old videotape into his VCR, Grant takes Jamie on a ghostly tour of his past, while a young version of himself (played by original stage Jamie John McCrea) marches defiantly through a Britain ravaged by AIDS. It’s a rare moment of grit in a film sorely in need of it, and a touching, albeit fleeting, tribute to a generation lost.
With moments like this, it’s hard to deny Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will only be a positive force in the world. Rose-colored to a fault, but with its heart firmly in the right place, it’s a film that only wants to make young queer kids feel seen and loved. It’s foolish to dismiss the impact of such noble aspirations, but it’s also easy to wish Jamie just gave us a bit more to talk about.
Amazon Studios will release Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in select theaters on September 10 and globally on Prime Video September 17.
Photo: John Rogers/Amazon