Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
The inspiration for this movie – a hit stage musical about a wannabe drag queen, in turn inspired by a 2011 documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 - landed in 2017 and, since then, conversations concerning drag and representation have evolved. A sometimes-awkward, mostly bold collaboration between Jonathan Butterell, Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells (who put the original show together) Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is guaranteed to spark debate. Mission accomplished!
Pretty, effervescent newcomer Max Harwood is Sheffield schoolboy Jamie New, who longs to wear high heels and a tiara. With the help of his mum, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire), his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and a fairy-godmotherish drag queen, Hugo Battersby aka Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant), he gets the shoes and outfit of his dreams.
Funny how modern fairytales work. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new stage production of Cinderella, written by Emerald Fennell, Cinders hates pinchy shoes (at her happiest, she looks like Caitlin Moran on her way to the pub). Feminists are fighting for the right to dress down. With exactly the same gusto, progressive men are fighting for the right to dress up.
Anyway, besides wanting to wear a dress to the ball (or in this case the school prom), Jamie also wants to be loved by his macho father, Wayne (Ralph Ineson). Margaret does everything she can to maintain the lie that Wayne is proud of his son. Meanwhile, Jamie’s jaundiced careers teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), bombards the boy with what she considers to be uncomfortable truths. And Hugo? In a major change from the show, he wants to give Jamie a history lesson.
Will adolescents (the film’s key demographic) be turned off by such a pedagogical move? As it happens, this section of the movie feels anything but stern and, with its many references to teen-favourite Freddie Mercury, is super-savvy.
During a new song, This Was Me, we get fantastical flashbacks of 80s and 90s activists, including the young Loco (original stage Jamie John McCrea, staggeringly charismatic), battling prejudice, clause 28 and AIDS. Though you may not notice this on first viewing, the beautiful man (Ramzan Miah) filming his friends is also, a few scenes later, the beautiful man dying in hospital, covered in lesions. The expression on Loco’s face suggests the dying man is her lover. We don’t see gay love in the rest of the film (the middle-aged Hugo doesn’t have a boyfriend; neither does Jamie) but, through this subtle montage, we’re exposed to a gay relationship that’s as sexually charged, and tragic, as anything in Romeo and Juliet.
Another nice surprise: Miss Hedge has become more complicated. The magnetic Horgan makes the most of this and has wicked fun in her big number, Work of Art. So many state-school secondary teachers, in movies, are blandly inspirational and/or focused on one high-flyer. Miss Hedge reminded me of the teachers at my comp: knackered, tough and basically desperate to see ALL the kids thrive.
Changes made in relation to Jamie’s family are less satisfying. In the show, Wayne’s absence, and Margaret’s emotional confusion, fuel one of Jamie’s best songs, Ugly in This Ugly World. That knotty number’s been dropped and with it any acknowledgement of how Margaret’s lies, as well as Wayne’s homophobia, have helped to screw up their kid. Though Margaret’s “boy” supposedly hits rock bottom during an encounter with his dad, it’s nothing a pep talk from Hugo can’t solve. Butterell, perhaps frightened of getting too heavy, doesn’t allow Jamie to feel low for long. The result? The highs, when they come, don’t have quite the same impact.
Even so, I was choked up by the finale. Jamie, Pritti, Hugo, Loco… These figures are designed to appeal to girls, boys and everyone in between. As such, they more than deserve to be the talk of the town.
Amazon Prime Video and selected Curzon cinemas. 120 mins, 12