Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Movie Review)

September 2021 is a gift to musical fans. Aside from Broadway reopening, a slew of musicals are coming to the screen. Dear Evan Hansen is coming to theatres at the end of the month. A proshot of Come From Away has already been released on AppleTV. Amazon Prime has been particularly busy, giving us a new jukebox version of Cinderella and a movie adaptation of the West End’s majorly successful Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing movie and musical reviews, not for any reason in particular. I’ve been trying to focus more on my creative writing and work has been crazy. But I watched Everybody’s Talking About Jamie the day it was released and was moved enough that I wanted to write a bit about it. This is no shade to the other two newly available musicals. I thoroughly enjoyed Cinderella (the “What a Man/Seven Nation Army” mashup was incredible and I would like to start a petition that Pierce Brosnan is only allowed to be in campy musicals from now on because between this, Mamma Mia!, and Eurovision he has found his niche) and I haven’t seen Come From Away yet (I have tickets to see the traveling production, and want to experience it for the first time live).

I’d been looking forward to Jamie passively. I’d listened to the cast recording a few times and even written about it once on this blog, but it wasn’t a show I knew a whole lot about. I’d kind of assumed it was a sort of Kinky Boots copycat with a bit of Billy Elliot mixed in. It isn’t.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy (Max Harwood) from a small town who wants to be a drag queen. There are some similar elements to Kinky Boots, of course. Both musicals are about drag, are based on true stories, and challenge the stringently enforced gender binary found in small, conservative communities. The overall feeling, though, is very different. When we meet Simon/Lola in Kinky Boots, he’s already who he is. He’s been through the hardships of his youth and while there are still struggles, he’s mostly pushing against the people who won’t accept him. The song “Not My Father’s Son” has the same feeling as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but overall Kinky Boots is about a grown adult and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is about a teenager still growing up. Also, much as Lola steals the show in Kinky Boots, it’s Charlie’s story. Jamie’s queerness is the story of his musical, and Lola’s queerness colors Charlie’s.

Jamie and his musical have a closer, more introspective story. He’s young. As his mentor Hugo (Richard E. Grant) says, of course he doesn’t know who he is yet. He’s sixteen. He’s still developing his drag personality, but more importantly he is still developing himself. He seems comfortable with himself—we find out in the first scene that he’s openly gay and thinks nothing of calling out the bullies who say anything to him about it—but much of that is a front; he is still working through a lot of internalized shame stemming from his father’s bigotry.

It’s easy to miss how absolutely devastating Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is when you’re just passively listening to the cast recording. Just listening, it’s the bold, confident songs that stick out—“And You Don’t Even Know It,” “The Legend of Loco Chanel”—but watching it pulls the subtler, sadder songs to the surface. Hands down, my favorite song is “The Wall in My Head.” It’s the second song of the musical, and it has Jamie expressing how difficult it is for him to overcome the internal shame that he has built over the years, but how desperately he wants to get over it. It’s beautiful and it’s powerful and it’s a gut punch right at the start.

It was something he said
Something he said
His words built a wall
A wall inside my head

Just one little thing
Didn’t mean that much to him
But it keeps building and building and building
This wall in my head
This wall in my head

Just one tiny thought
It started out so small
The thought made a brick
The bricks made a wall

And the wall keeps me down
And the wall trips me up
And it keeps building and building and building
This wall in my head
This wall in my head

I very, very rarely cry. Fiction affects me very deeply, but I don’t usually cry (my sadness usually manifests as frustration). This song got me really hard, and the musical did not let up. Internalized shame, unfortunately, is something I know well, and the emotion of this movie—and this song in particular—was compounded by the circumstances of my watching it. I watched it by myself, one eye halfway on the door because I didn’t really want my dad to come in and see what I was watching. Like, it would’ve been fine. My dad is not Jamie’s dad. But he’s not the sort of person it’s easy to have conversations about queerness or gender nonconformity with. He’s not Jamie’s mom.

“The Wall in My Head” is the first song that brought me near tears, and it’s the one that told me that this musical was going to be more than the campy romp I expected, but it was far from the only one. The other one worth mentioning specifically is actually a new song for the movie. Instead of singing the flashy “Legend of Loco Chanel,” Hugo sings “This Was Me,” a song about queer history, including the losses to homophobia and AIDS. Richard E. Grant isn’t much of a singer, but that ends up not mattering because “This Was Me” is all about emotion and pain and loss and you don’t need a perfect, unwavering belt for that. “Loco Chanel” is a better song if you’re looking for musicality and flash, but “This Was Me” is better storytelling. It transforms Everybody’s Talking About Jamie from a story about one particular young drag queen to one about drag as a revolution that has culminated in stories like Jamie’s. Jamie’s struggles are horrible and heartbreaking, but he can be openly gay and proudly wear his dresses only because of those like Hugo who broke down heavier walls.

It’s also a bit reminiscent of “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, which is also seen as a queer anthem, and that’s cool. I know “This Is Me” isn’t from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but you could definitely sing “This Was Me” and then follow it with “This Is Me” for a very powerful musical history about how far we’ve come.

“Loco Chanel” isn’t the only song from the stage show that was left out of the movie, but it is the most significant. It’s the only one that I noticed while I was watching the movie. I only noticed the others after the fact when I re-listened to the cast recording and was like oh, that one got cut.

I’ll be honest; I did not expect this movie to wreck me emotionally. Jamie’s father’s cruelty broke my heart, but Ms. Hedge’s casual bigotry actually hurt worse. Because everyone collectively recognizes that Wayne (Ralph Ineson) is a jackass. When a man looks at his son and says I don’t want anything to do with you and I wanted a son so badly and I got you instead, it is absolutely crushing, but it’s also possible to see him as the pits of humanity because anyone who could say that to their own child is clearly heartless and evil. Ms. Hedge (Sharon Horgan) is subtly and insidiously cruel. She hides her homophobia (transphobia? Both, probably) behind propriety. It’s nothing against Jamie, but rules are rules. She’d accept him, but she has to think of the other children and what they need. The things she says are not as immediately and obviously reprehensible as Jamie’s father’s. In fact, I had no idea that her song—“Work of Art”—is sarcastic and bullying until I saw it onscreen. Listening passively, I thought it was just another scene of Jamie’s friends gassing him up. The reality, that a woman in a position of power is gleefully and unabashedly mocking a student for his gender expression and faces no repercussions, is harrowing.

The cinematography of that scene, though, is beautiful. The whole movie is, actually, although the color dissonance used in “Work of Art” is the clear standout. The use of flashbacks during several of the songs creates a powerful visual language for the film. One could argue that it’s a bit overly literal at times, but it works for me. Cutting Hugo and Jamie into the scenes of historical marches, watching Young Hugo and his fellow drag queens make history and suffer losses, was particularly powerful, but seeing Jamie’s childhood was effective as well.

The messaging of the movie is also great. (Spoilers) Despite all the grief and pain, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is about love and acceptance. Jamie’s father is a piece of shit, but his mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) is wonderful. She supports him one hundred percent and is the definition of unconditional love. Towards the end of the movie, Jamie asks her if she ever wishes, even for a moment, that he was normal. She answers “No” immediately and without question. She has never, ever wanted him to be anything but exactly who he is, and she follows that by pointing out that “normal” is arbitrary, anyway. Jamie can cut Wayne out of his life entirely because he has his mother and his mother’s BFF Ray (Shobna Gulati) who is so close to them both that she’s basically his second mother. He also has his own best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel), who is also a beautiful beacon of unconditional support.

At the beginning of the movie, Jamie suggests that he can only be himself once he’s moved away from Sheffield. He keeps his dreams secret from his classmates. He ducks away from trash collectors, afraid that they’ll see him in his feminine clothing. He tells Pritti directly that Sheffield is not a place where he can be himself. He’s belief in himself is conditional on his location, but he is wrong. He finds a local mentor in Hugo, who takes him under his wing and acts almost as a surrogate father. He has Pritti and Margaret and Ray. At the end of the movie, Jamie overcomes his insecurities by attending prom as himself. He wears a dress but does not hide behind an alter ego, and he is rewarded by the support of his entire class. He confidently wears makeup and heels in plain sight of the men he’d hidden from earlier, and they wave happily to him, fully accepting. The movie opens and closes with Jamie at home, taking out the trash. At the start, he is covered up (from the rain, admittedly, but this is a metaphor) and insecure and at the end he is open and accepted. He did not have to leave home to find that love and acceptance. That’s a beautiful message. Jamie’s acceptance comes from within, but he finds it outwardly as well. No matter who you are or where you are, there are people who will love you for exactly who you are. Sometimes you have to look for them, and sometimes you have to cut the toxic people out, but there are people who will love and accept and support you.

The primary relationship in the movie is Jamie and Margaret’s, and it’s refreshing and lovely to see such a tender and affectionate child-parent bond. There are so many strained ones in media, so to see one that is so pure and loving is wonderful. I particularly like how, towards the end, Jamie reciprocates Margaret’s support. Most of the movie is about Margaret supporting Jamie, but in “My Man, Your Boy” Jamie expresses how much he appreciates and loves his mother. Moms are amazing, and they don’t always get props they deserve.

Then there’s Jamie’s friendship with Pritti. The way their friendship grows over the course of the movie is great. At first they seem to hang out because they’re outcasts—Jamie is openly gay and Pritti is a Muslim who wears a hijab—but their bond deepens and by the end they’re definitely friends-for-life. Would I have liked for a bit more Jamie-supports-Pritti and less Pritti-supports-Jamie? Yeah. Their relationship is a bit unequal, but I acknowledge that happens when one character is the titular protagonist and the other is a supporting figure. I love Pritti, though. She has such pretty songs—“It Means Beautiful” is one of my favorites—and the scene at the end where she stands up for herself against the school bully is incredible. Also just the optics are great. How often are there characters wearing hijabs onscreen when the hijab isn’t the bulk of their story?

And then there’s the friendship between Margaret and Ray. It isn’t the focus of the movie, and that somehow makes it even better. Older women don’t often get to have casual but emotionally significant relationships in fiction. So often moms are reduced solely to their motherhood, and I was glad that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie gave Margaret some moments—however scarce—without Jamie.

This is a great movie. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but the ultimate message of it is essentially be yourself. It might be hard, but there is a community out there for you if you’re willing to look for it. It’s about growing up, being yourself, loving yourself and the people who love you, and fighting for the now instead of waiting for the future. And it has great songs and solid performances to back that up.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is not exactly what I expected. I’ve been watching a lot of campy musicals lately—Cinderella, Julie and the Phantoms, Once Upon a Mattress—and I expected this to be another one. I thought I was going into a silly, over-the-top, queer camp movie and instead I got a bildungsroman that broke my heart a little bit. I enjoyed it for different reasons than I expected to, but I absolutely enjoyed it. The songs are great, the cinematography is interesting and attractive, and the story is painful but ultimately emotionally cathartic. I can see why this musical is so popular amongst British theatergoers, and I hope that this movie keeps the musical adaptation trend going (and inspires more movie makers to adapt musicals that don’t already have a readily-available filmed version!).  

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Available on Amazon Prime Streaming

Directed by Jonathan Butterell

Written by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells

Starring Max Harwood (Jamie), Lauren Patel (Pritti), Sarah Lancashire (Margaret), Richard E. Grant (Hugo), Sharon Horgan (Ms. Hedge), Shobna Gulati (Ray), Ralph Ineson (Wayne), and Samuel Bottomley (Dean)

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