EIFF 2021 Review: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie ★★★★

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has made a name for itself as one of the West End’s most delightfully feel-good musicals turning the true-life story of teenage drag queen Jamie Campbell into an all-singing, all-dancing triumph. The musical devised by lyricist Tom Macrae and musician Dan Gillespie Sells makes the leap to the big screen in a directorial feature debut for Jonathan Butterell with Macrae adapting. The result is a lavish uplifting spectacle brimming with a sense of high energy fun, slickly staged musical numbers, and a heartfelt, empowering message faithful to its theatrical namesake.

Sixteen year old Jamie Campbell (Max Harwood) dreams of pursuing a career as a performer, despite the blunt reservations of his year advisor Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan). Supported by his mother (Sarah Lancashire) and best-friend Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), Jamie embraces his desire to become a drag queen making the bold decision to do so at his school prom. With the assistance of newfound drag mother Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), Jamie sets out to establish and defiantly embrace his drag identity despite the resistance from his school.

With British production company Warp Films (who previously brought us Four Lions, This Is England and ‘71) at the helm, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie manages to capture an authentic English setting – successfully adding to the sense of realism and Sheffield grit that this true story deserves. This is after-all an underdog tale and whilst Jamie is supported by his Mother and her best-friend Ray (a scene-stealing Shobna Gulati – one of the original West End stars), we are drawn into his story through his resilience and bravery against the resistance he faces from his school peers, absent father (Ralph Inneson), and bigoted school staff. Part of the magic of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie also shines from this idea of camp fabulosity and sparkle flowing from a working-class Sheffield setting.

Harwood captures the dualities of Jamie as a character with an inner-strength yet he has doubts, he has the guts and bravery to embrace his identity but benefits from a close-knit support group. He is buoyant and quick with an acid-tongue, something that translates well into his encounters with school bullies, bringing a sense of sharp comedy to the fold with Harwood magnetic in these moments. Yet the young actor excels in quieter, emotionally driven scenes – many of which stem from Jamie’s lack of closure about his relationship with his distant father; scenes which centre of Harwood and Lancashire are some of the strongest also, with both having a charming, emotional bond which feels authentic and well-pitched.

This tale of an underdog is brought to life by the infectious musical numbers. The opening And You Don’t Even Know It sees Jamie transported from his dull classroom to a vibrant night club where he is the star of the show, whilst The Wall in My Head touches on Jamie overcoming the unpleasant homophobic interactions with his father from his youth. Other highlights include Work of Art, a punchy synth-driven number delivered by Horgan as she attempts to shame Jamie after catching him with make-up, whilst title song Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a rowdy crowd-pleaser which sees Jamie’s school-mates fascinated by his debut drag performance. Butterell and the film’s choreographers excel with these performance numbers from crafting colourful vibrant spectacles, to quieter emotive numbers such as My Man, Your Boy.

A scene-stealing turn from Richard E. Grant proves one of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s finest coups. The actor nails the lines between theatrical campery, weathered former queen, and motivational figure – aided by some additional backstory that is missing from the musical. We get a glimpse into Hugo’s past through a VHS montage which captures the queer movement in the late eighties soundtracked to a standout Holly Johnson original number This Was Me (part dancefloor banger, part emotional tour de force) where we see Hugo and his chosen family amidst the rise of AIDS and the height of Thatcherism. Unfortunately The Legend of Loco Chanelle (and the Blood Red Dress) from the musical does not make it onto the screen, yet This Was Me more than makes-up for this. Richard E. Grant does get to flex his musical chops in drag queen rallying war cry Over the Top, however. Further musical additions come from new contributions from Chaka Khan, The Feeling, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Becky Hill and Todrick Hall.

Cinematographer Christopher Ross does an impressive job at blending Sheffield realism with the shimmering camp of glitter-filled musical numbers with the transitions feeling natural and often playful (such as school dinner ladies singing through jewel-encrusted mops in Spotlight). Tonally, the feature, like the musical, does have too many slow ballads in its latter act with the succession of It Means Beautiful, He’s My Boy and My Man, Your Boy, whilst all being impressive in their own right, significantly hampering the film’s energy levels.

Whilst there are familiar arcs to the traditional high school underdog tale e.g. unsupportive teachers or the journey of the insecure school bully, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie presents them with a sense of wit and colour. It’s also impressive to see a feature delving into weightier topics such as familial relationships, gender identity, and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and still managing to be uplifting and empowering, camp and hugely watchable.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie played as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It is available from Amazon Prime Video on 17th September 2021.