Friday, March 24, 2023

‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ Review: Groundbreaking Musical Fetes a Teen Drag Queen’s Coming Out

Unlike most of the kids in his class, 16-year-old Jamie New knows what he wants to be when he grows up: a drag queen. And unlike most of the fabulous aspiring female impersonators who’ve strutted on-screen before him, he has surprisingly few obstacles in his way. Jamie has an understanding mom, a supportive best friend and a school full of closed-minded students who don’t take much to come around, which makes this glittery big-screen adaptation of 2017’s well-liked West End tuner an unusually festive affair. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is to queer teens what “High School Musical” was to, well, their more closeted peers: an upbeat, be-yourself pep rally for self-questioning young adult audiences.

Pre-pandemic (and more importantly, pre-Disney merger), the feel-good musical was snapped up by Fox for big-screen release, where it would have followed in the footsteps of the studio’s “Love, Simon” — a second unapologetically gay, refreshingly nonjudgmental coming-out and -of-age story for today’s teens. Then COVID struck and Disney got cold feet, and now, “Jamie” will make its debut on Amazon Prime instead, following an ebullient outdoor world premiere at Outfest, where a field full of gay (and gay-friendly) grown-ups bonded over a movie the likes of which couldn’t and didn’t exist when they needed it most.

Set in Sheffield, England, this working-class fantasy blends a “Billy Elliot”-style uphill battle with the vibrant energy and color of mid-’90s misfit indies such as “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Ma vie en rose.” If you thought it was tough for a mining-town kid to be a ballet dancer, imagine one lip-syncing in six-inch heels. It’s shallow, it’s simplistic and it all works out a little too easily, but the movie’s very existence remains a cause for celebration. And get this: It’s all based on a true story, as captured in Jenny Popplewell’s hourlong TV portrait, “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.” So if everything feels like some kind of wishful-thinking fairy tale, think again.

On the surface, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” sounds an awful lot like last year’s “Prom,” since the musicals’ lead characters are working toward the same goal: convincing a straitlaced school to allow queer students to attend an LGBT-inclusive prom. In Ryan Murphy’s movie, a lesbian wanted to share a dance with her undercover girlfriend, the way straight couples can, whereas here, Jamie dreams of showing up in a dress. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end, since the stage versions of the two projects were incubating at the same time and neither could really be accused of stealing from the other.

With all the emphasis on trans identities of late, cisgender drag performers (so central to queer culture) have taken a back seat at the movies, as the role-play and dress-up aspects complicate the political conversation. In the world we live in, you have to be an incredibly strong man to go out dressed as a woman. But as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has demonstrated, fierce drag queens aren’t hatched fully formed. They have to start somewhere, which makes this a relatively uncommon origin story: a drag princess’s big debut — with an extravagant and extremely game Richard E. Grant delivering unforgettable support as the boy’s mentor, local drag legend Loco Chanelle.

Behind the camera, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” was made by the same creative team as the original stage musical, including director Jonathan Butterell, who developed the show in Sheffield with composer Dan Gillespie Sells (lead singer of the Feeling) and book and lyrics writer Tom MacRae. But the feature version called for fresh leads, which means this is actor Max Harwood’s big debut as well. A tall, slender young man with sharp features and an intense gaze that breaks the fourth wall from the first scene, staring directly out into the audience and engaging them from the get-go, Harwood has the self-confidence to play one of the most unapologetically queer characters ever to appear in a film of this stature.

At Jamie’s school, everyone’s obliged to wear boring blue uniforms, which no doubt feeds the character’s desire to burst out in the sparkling red heels he gets as a sweet-16 present from his mum, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire). Jamie stuffs the shoes in his butterfly-bedazzled backpack — a flashy bit of personal flair that proves he’s not trying to blend in — and shows them to Muslim bestie Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), who has her own outsider issues in the conservative community. Pritti’s bewildered at first, but quickly accepts Jamie’s description of himself as “a boy who sometimes wants to be a girl,” accompanying him to the House of Loco, a drag supply store run by an unlikely mentor, Grant’s Hugo Battersby.

The songs are nearly all bouncy, look-at-me numbers intended for Jamie and his inner circle, and which director Butterell (who hails from a choreography background) presents with coordinated Kenny Ortega-style dancing and spinning overhead cameras, while Jamie — or attention-hog alter ego Mimi Me — stands at the center, arms outstretched. But there’s one new addition that makes all the difference: an original number called “This Was Me,” a terrific ’80s-style anthem (performed by Grant and Frankie Goes to Hollywood lead singer Holly Johnson) that provides younger audiences with some much-needed queer history.

The song, which sounds authentic enough to be a long-lost Boy George demo, plays over a powerful home-video montage, which spans from 1987 to ’92 to encompass the impact 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 this, when people aren’t just talking about Jamie but putting his baby struggle in a larger context, as today’s gays don’t always appreciate the fight that paved the way.

Granted, not everything’s a cake walk for this kid, but Margaret’s so encouraging that it offsets his homophobic dad (Ralph Ineson), school bully Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley) is easily put in his place, and even the school’s tough-cookie careers counselor, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), doesn’t seem especially committed to enforcing the rules. Of course it’s disruptive for a boy to go to prom in a dress. But considering the treatment Carrie received at her school formal, the old Virginia Slims tag line applies: You’ve come a long way, baby!


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