I will admit that I was nervous about a film adaptation of the West End’s hit, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The musical debuted in 2017 and has hosted a variety of well known drag talent across the pond (you know, before the pandemic changed the world), and I imagine it’s the type of musical that feeds off the audience in the room. My first experience with the show came when a filmed version of production was screened at ImageOut, a queer film festival in Rochester, New York. I immediately fell in love with its music and the true story of a young teen with big dreams of big heels and becoming a famous drag queen. In his feature film directorial debut, Jonathan Butterell delivers a faithful adaptation, and this feel-good musical will have you reaching for the highest set of heels.
Jamie New (Max Harwood) spends most of his final days of year 11 daydreaming in class. He imagines that all of his classmates’ eyes are on him while he struts down a runway, but, in reality, those same peers might make fun of him if he revealed that Jamie wanted to be a famous drag queen. His practical instructor, Miss Hedge (an always welcome Sharon Horgan) encourages Jamie and his classmates to keep a level head when thinking of their futures despite everyone assuming that they will become a reality show or YouTube sensation.
Jamie is able to confide in a few people in his life. His mother, played by Sarah Lancashire, is one of the most supportive parents in recent memory, and his classmate Pritti (Lauren Patel) goes wide-eyed when Jamie reveals red, glittery heels given to him by his mother for his birthday. Jamie finds a queer mentor in the form of Richard E. Grant–ahhh, if only it were that easy– when he wanders into a drag queen boutique and befriends Hugo Battersby and his alter ego, Loco Chanelle.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tells a unique point of view, and the story allows him to sometimes be a selfish jerk. Not always, but, hey, we all said crappy things on our journey to find ourselves. I have heard other audiences claim that the show doesn’t have enough at stake, and I take umbrage at that criticism. Not all queer characters are going to have unbelievably dire circumstances or hit total rock bottom to learn or grow. Yes, Jamie has a more established support system, but his journey is valid and bloody entertaining.
As with most musical adaptations, songs were cut but Jamie retains a lot of its winning musical numbers. “The Legend of Loco Chanelle” was eliminated and I mourn that loss deeply. In its place, however, is an incredible ballad sung by Hugo titled, “This Was Me,” and the song takes the mentorship plotline in a sturdy, more dramatic direction. Since drag is presented to us in more ways than ever before, there is the constant debate of whether drag should be used as a political tool or simply fluffy entertainment. It’s both. Blurring the gender line is itself a political act but it can be used to entertain as it pushes boundaries. “This Was Me” reminds us how drag queens and the transgender community played pivotal roles in our community. Drag has always been there throughout important moments and got us through tough times like the AIDS epidemic. This new song puts more on the line for Jamie and extends that historical context. He wouldn’t be able to become a successful performer or potential RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant if it wasn’t for Loco Chanelle.
As he gains confidence in his drag persona, Harwood flourishes on screen. This is Harwood’s first major role in anything, and he exudes a level of confidence that would normally make another actor self-conscious. He embodies Jamie with both a burgeoning sassiness and a big heart. He wants to please his mom as much as he wants to work a runway, and that balance is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Harwood handles every emotional turn with sensitivity and verve, and, unlike the stage show, seeing Jamie on stage in drag in the movie makes us root for him even more.
Grant is a dependable mentor. Hugo never tries to steal the spotlight from Jamie, but he’s always waiting in the wings to lend an extra makeup tip or two. Whenever he’s not on screen, Grant’s presence is felt throughout. Lancashire provides an important emotional anchor late in the film with her rendition of “He’s My Boy”–my personal favorite song in the show.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie features fabulous actors, energetic musical numbers, and a timeless theme of acceptance. Its heart is as big as its shoe size, and it’s a glittering good time.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie debuts on Amazon Prime on September 17.