Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Review: ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ falls short
There are a lot of ways to take a story from stage to screen. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the movie based on the hit West End musical, goes the straightforward route: hire the director and writer of the musical to do the movie too. If it ain’t broke, don’t hire a repairperson. So, this film adaptation comes to you from writer Tom MacRae and director Jonathan Butterell. From a bird’s-eye view, it’s a 1:1 translation of the musical: English teenager Jamie New (Max Harwood) wants to become a drag queen, but his father and schoolmates aren’t too thrilled with the idea, to say the least. Thus begins a singsong journey of tolerance and self-acceptance.
Luckily for Jamie, his home life isn’t a source of turmoil. His mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) accepts him for who he is, and so does his surrogate parent Ray (Shobna Gulati), a family friend who stepped in after Jamie’s father left. His only other ally, though, is his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel), who backs Jamie up when he’s bullied at school. Jamie’s already out as gay, so he’s developed some thick skin—but he fears a career as a drag queen will send his classmates over the edge. He’s also not entirely sure what it means to himself.
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The movie’s greatest contribution to our sad, colorless lives is its pair of cinematic parents. Lancashire is a fountain of love as Jamie’s mother, all caring eyes and welcoming body language. The person that becomes Jamie’s mentor and father figure—former drag queen Hugh Battersby, played with tremendous warmth by the inimitable Richard E. Grant—is just as affable. He embodies the soul of “the old gays” with genuine kindness. His and Lancashire’s performances are like bumpers on a bowling lane, pointing Jamie in the right direction and preventing the film’s tone from dipping into the gutter. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a celebration of queerness, and these performances go a long way to keep it that way.
Max Harwood, in his debut here, is fantastic as Jamie, and sure to have a bright future ahead of him. Brightness is his calling card, really: cinematographer Christopher Ross (returning to Earth after shooting Cats) and production designer Jane Levick do a beautiful job of framing Jamie in blues, yellows, and pinks, basking him in a palette that’s usually reserved for female protagonists and hyperpop music videos. An early shot of Jamie’s lean, wiry body bending against the backdrop of a pink sky is positively euphoric.
It’s helpful that the visual dimension is so strong, given that the screenplay is so short on detail. Jamie’s a bit of an underwritten cipher, but his schoolmates fare worse: the movie chooses a couple “villains” to dole out most of the prejudice, reducing the hard work of combating hate to the convincing of a few hardheads. All of Jamie’s other classmates go from hate crime bystanders to queer allies in the blink of an eye. Even for a story with a lighter tone, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels like it’s taking the easy way out. Jamie New is based on a real person—Jamie Campbell, subject of the 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16—and I often found myself wondering how the intricacies of acceptance played out in reality. You don’t want your story to be so sketchy that the mind starts preferring reality to musicals.
All in all, that’s the movie’s biggest problem. It doesn’t luxuriate in being a musical. Butterell makes the curious choice of shooting the big, optimistic numbers as if they were playing out in characters’ imaginations, frequently cutting back to a reality without swiveling lights or joyous dancing. Stopping the real world from becoming an inexplicable, bravura musical feels tepid. The film lets the slower songs take place in reality—two people gazing at each other while singing isn’t too far removed from the look of everyday life—but otherwise, Jamie only gets one number that exists fully outside reality, and it’s at the very end. The only musical sequence that feels transcendent belongs to Richard E. Grant: a moving portrait of queer history performed through old video footage.
After Jamie gets this history lesson, he tells his friend that drag queens aren’t just queens—they’re warrior queens, revolutionaries. From a perspective of form and medium, the movie can’t touch that legacy. Drag is synthesis: a rejoining of bodies wrongly held as binary. Identity is blown up to such extravagant proportions that more rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity are lost in the mix. The best movie musicals achieve a similar kind of synthesis between cinema and theater—and that’s where Everybody’s Talking About Jamie falls short. It lacks an extravagance that redefines.