Dir: Jonathan Butterell. Starring: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Ralph Ineson, Sharon Horgan, Richard E. Grant. 15, 115 mins.
“This really happened,” reads a title card at the beginning of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. “Then we added dancing and singing.” In 2011, the BBC released Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 – a documentary that followed a County Durham teenager, Jamie Campbell, who decided to attend his secondary school prom in drag. The backlash was fierce, and monstrously cruel: students bullied him and teachers outright banned him from the event. His resilience in the face of it all, though, was enough to inspire The Feeling frontman Dan Gillespie Sells and writer Tom MacRae to create a musical based on his story, one that began in 2017 and is still running in the West End today. Its film adaptation has now arrived on Prime Video.
But much has changed in the past decade. Though Jamie’s fight for acceptance both at home and at school is one still shared by countless LGBTQ+ youths, there have been significant advances when it comes to visibility across the cultural and political spectrum. That’s especially true of drag itself – RuPaul’s Drag Race has reached a point of success where past winner Bianca Del Rio (who briefly starred in Jamie’s West End production) can cameo in this film with an expectation that a good portion of the audience will recognise her. Would an updated retelling for the 2020s ring quite as true? It’s much to director Jonathan Butterell’s credit, then, that his film works so coherently – this isn’t just an adaptation, but a revitalisation. And one that, crucially, is able to replicate the musical’s effervescent joy while still doing the work to place it in a more relevant context.
What MacRae’s screenplay does well is to explore how a gay 16-year-old, who’s still very much in the process of discovering themselves, might see their place in the wider LGBTQ+ community of today. Jamie (Max Harwood), here renamed Jamie New, can see a viable career path for himself thanks not only to RuPaul, but to the vibrant makeup community on Instagram. When he first seeks out the help of drag shop owner and former performer Hugo Battersby (Richard E Grant), the jazzy welcome number that usually comes next is replaced with something altogether more sombre.
Grant, who beautifully balances both the tenderness and vivaciousness of the role, launches into “This Was Me” – a trip back through the past few decades of gay liberation, and a tribute to the lingering pain of those who saw loved ones die in the Aids crisis. It’s a brief, but touching moment that helps Jamie gain some perspective on his own struggle. It also reminds the audience watching that, as commercialised as drag might have become, it remains firmly rooted in ideas of political and personal rebellion.
But Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is, at times, a strong idea in search of an equally strong execution. Sarah Lancashire, as Jamie’s mother, is heartbreakingly convincing as a woman who’d do anything to protect her son’s happiness. Though newcomers Harwood and Lauren Patel, as Jamie’s best friend, have an untrained rawness that feels authentic, they struggle to fully deliver the emotional impact of key scenes.
Most noticeably, you can feel Butterell straining himself when it comes to enlivening the limited, ordinary settings of his musical numbers. When it comes to the cinematic form, there are no barriers to those with enough daring and imagination (and this year’s In the Heights is the ideal example of how to do things right) – and yet most of the musical numbers here are centred around some variation on a catwalk. Things get particularly awkward when Sharon Hogan’s homophobic teacher has to perform the electro-tinged “Work of Art” while doing nothing else but walking down a school corridor. Why would Everybody’s Talking About Jamie dream so small when its subject did the exact opposite?