Unlike most of his classmates, Jamie New, 16, knows exactly what he wants to be when he grows up: a drag queen. And, unlike the majority of the gorgeous wannabe female impersonators who have strutted on-screen before him, he faces remarkably few roadblocks. Jamie has a loving mother, a supportive best friend, and a school full of closed-minded kids who don’t take long to warm up to her, making this glittering big-screen version of 2017’s well-liked West End tuner an unexpectedly joyful affair. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is to gay teenagers what “High School Musical” was to their more closed-minded peers: a cheerful, be-youthful pep rally for self-conscious young adult viewers.
Pre-pandemic (and, more significantly, pre-Disney merger), Fox picked up the feel-good musical for a big-screen release. It would follow in the footsteps of the studio’s “Love, Simon.” A second unashamedly homosexual, refreshingly nonjudgmental coming-of-age narrative for today’s adolescents. Then COVID struck, and Disney backed down. But now “Jamie” will have its Amazon Prime debut instead, following an exuberant outdoor world premiere at Outfest, where a field full of gay (and gay-friendly) grown-ups bonded over a movie that couldn’t and didn’t exist when they needed it the most.
This working-class fairytale, set in Sheffield, England, combines a “Billy Elliot”-style uphill fight with the vivid energy and color of mid-’90s misfit indies like “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Ma vie en rose.” Imagine a mining-town youngster lip-syncing in six-inch heels if you thought becoming a ballet dancer was difficult. It’s superficial, simple, and everything works out a bit too neatly, but the film’s sheer existence is a reason for joy. And, get this, it’s all based on a true story, as told in Jenny Popplewell’s hour-long television documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.” So, if everything feels like a wishful-thinking fairy tale, reconsider.
On the surface, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” sounds a lot like last year’s “Prom” because the primary protagonists in both musicals are attempting to persuade a conservative school to allow gay students to attend an LGBT-inclusive prom. In Ryan Murphy’s film, a lesbian wished to share a dance with her covert girlfriend in the same way as straight couples can, but Jamie fantasizes about wearing a dress. But that’s about where the parallels end. The two ideas’ stage versions were incubating simultaneously, and neither could indeed be accused of stealing from the other.
With the recent emphasis on trans identities, cisgender drag performers (so important to gay culture) have taken a back seat in the movies since the role-playing, and dressing-up components complicate the political discourse. To be disguised as a woman in today’s environment, you have to be a mighty man. But, as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has shown, ferocious drag queens aren’t born fully developed. They have to start somewhere, making this a rather unusual genesis story: a drag princess’s big debut, with Richard E. Grant providing memorable backing as the boy’s tutor, local drag icon Loco Chanelle.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” was directed by Jonathan Butterell. He devised the play in Sheffield with composer Dan Gillespie Sells (lead vocalist of the Feeling) and book and lyrics writer Tom MacRae. However, the feature version called for new protagonists. Thus this is also actor Max Harwood’s major debut. Harwood, a tall, slim young man with sharp features and an intense stare that breaks the fourth wall from the first scene, gazing right out into the audience and engaging them from the start, has the self-assurance to play one of the most unabashedly gay characters to appear in a film.
Everyone at Jamie’s school must wear drab blue uniforms, which no doubt feeds the character’s urge to burst out in the glittering red shoes he receives as a sweet-16 gift from his mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire). Jamie stuffs the shoes inside his butterfly-bedazzled bag — a bright touch of personal flair that demonstrates he’s not trying to fit in — and presents them to his Muslim best friend, Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), who is also an outcast in the strict society. Pritti is first perplexed but quickly accepts Jamie’s depiction of himself as “a boy who occasionally wants to be a female,” taking him to the House of Loco, a drag supplies store operated by Grant’s Hugo Battersby.
The songs are almost all bouncy, look-at-me numbers aimed at Jamie and his inner circle. Director Butterell (from a choreography background) presents with coordinated Kenny Ortega-style dancing and spinning overhead cameras. At the same time, Jamie — or attention-hog alter ego Mimi Me — stands in the center, arms outstretched. But one new element makes all the difference: an original song called “This Was Me,” a fantastic ’80s-style anthem (sung by Grant and Frankie Goes to Hollywood lead vocalist Holly Johnson) that delivers much-needed LGBT history to younger listeners.
The song, which sounds like a long-lost Boy George demo, plays over a dramatic home-video montage that spans 1987 to 1992 and covers the effects of AIDS, from gay-rights marches and Princess Diana hospital visits to the death of Freddie Mercury (as well as Hugo’s then-partner). “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” could have used more moments like these when people aren’t just talking about Jamie but placing his infant battle in a broader context because today’s gays don’t always recognize the struggle that paved the way.
The fact that Jamie’s biggest challenge is internal is a definite indicator of development. Granted, not everything is easy for this kid. Still, Margaret is so encouraging that it balances out his homophobic father (Ralph Ineson), school bully Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley), and even the school’s tough-cookie careers counselor, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), who doesn’t seem particularly committed to enforcing the rules. Of course, a male wearing a dress to prom is disruptive. But, given Carrie’s treatment at her school formal, the old Virginia Slims adage applies: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”