In an absolute one-eighty on Amazon’s part, the tide of musical comedies has suddenly steered back in the right direction for the shoreline. Where Cinderella couldn’t shake the formula, the one-week-later answer is simple: be down to earth, flashy, and bet on original songs. Adapted from a hit West End musical and inspired by very real events, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie celebrates that necessary desire for authenticity and affirmation, allowing for healthy theatrical flair to worm through the filter. Much of it follows framework only followed to the letter once before on Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here, family support takes a greater focus in a singular protagonist embracing their truest self, even if the same can’t be said for distinguishing the reflex of modern-day masculinity, but that’s a minor quarrel in an otherwise grand adventure in self-acceptance.
British high school can be like a jungle pit, where the misfits struggle to gain any ground if they trot out of line. That remains the case for one Jamie New (newcomer Max Harwood), having just turned 16 and already well at peace with his orientation. A gay sophomore, and a target of bullying and ostracization? That’s nothing fresh. Jamie’s had to deal with that for a while, by his fellow students, disapproving personnel, and even his father Wayne (Ralph Ineson), whose shame incited a nasty divorce. Even with the progress made, he’s still confused about many things.
The lure of wanting to perform as a means of creative expression helps him carry through. Though it’s a safe bet nobody in his sleepy village would imagine that would include acquiring a drag persona. After receiving a pair of ruby red heels as a birthday gift, Jamie’s determination only sharpens, if only to break the gender norm in time for his prom night. Thankful to have allies on his side, namely bestie Pritti (Lauren Patel), mom Margaret (Sarah Lancashire), and wise drag scene sage Hugo (Richard E. Grant), Jamie carefully navigates a preemptively rocky end of term, marked by a disapproving English teacher (Sharon Horgan), and bullheaded jock bully Dean (Samuel Bottomley).
That fervent passion is shared quite evenly for the creative nucleus of Jamie, between the same individuals responsible for crafting the stage production, a wild spectacle inspired by a notable 2011 documentary. Director Jonathan Butterell makes his screen debut, confidently reshaping this opus for the cameras, elevating beyond a prior filmed account of the play, written in words in actions by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Behind the showmanship, and that underlying flamboyance – itself intertwined in key numbers by jaded confusion and objection, lies a strong emotional heart, the kind Jamie’s still searching for.
Taken in the form of longing, where Jamie has understood his own framework and is rolling well with the punches. With adulthood knocking at the door, however, his journey of identity now reaches an essential turning point, desperate to become the center of attention, but where outside influences carry greater meaning to learn from. In his closest advocate Pritti, facing her own life’s quarrel, escaping Sheffield in favor of Cambridge, and perhaps the world of science. With Hugo, whose own experience in drag under the guise of Loco Chanelle epically transcended the early era of AIDS and Britain’s subsequent period of LGBT revolution. Grant’s performance makes for one early late-career show-stealer; give him the spotlight, he will rob it dry. And certainly, on the class front, where Miss Hedge bares figurative claws maintaining her school’s broken reputation, perpetuated by a stereotypical bully keeping everyone in their place. And the normally boisterous Horgan taps into her inner Connie Britton to fulfill the bit.
But it is in Jamie’s own fractured family life where the grandest evolution must be forged. Sells and MacRae’s libretto shines most in expressing the conflict of a broken marriage, and the kid trapped in between. For the ever-reliable Ineson, he’s been overdue for a subtle standout role. He’s granted that, with this shameful dad part, the guy had already started fresh with a new family, never having the son he wanted before. As Jamie discovers his passion, the desire for closure with the father figure he never could have for long burns to the point of physical pain. All while Margaret continues to question just where it went wrong, why she could still love her son with societal flaws intact, but he couldn’t. That disconnect eventually leads toward Sells and MacRae’s equivalent to “Pacienca y Fe”, with Lancashire delivering a show-stopping tearjerker just when the moment calls for one.
This diversely balanced musical structure evidently builds into a firm set of steppingstones for newcomer Harwood, taking over the role John McCrea had originated for the stage. Like the character he depicts, Max is a born showman, can-do spirit propelling his journey toward recognition, stubbornness reminding him to stay grounded. Just as Jamie’s goals don’t come without a little elbow grease, so too does Harwood’s approach to the character require jumping through myriad hoops. And he does, all too well, never losing focus. One hopes it would have done enough to maybe challenge the narrow wire distancing masculine and feminine traits, just before they converge on the hardwood for a paying audience to cheer. And we hit that palpable heartbeat often to burrow into the film’s soul; it would’ve helped to see that on a consistent level.
Butterell’s stage directing mindset can only do so much for this merger, making an incomplete translation for the screen with spiderweb cracks in the melodrama. The latter half does take a hit in this case, when Jamie’s ego incites a rise in pre-existing tension, coupled by a lame duck of a number. Jane Levick’s (Out of Blue) otherwise captivating style aesthetic works overtime to make up the difference, as she does with each song or moment of character growth, for better or worse. Aided by Guy Speranza’s (The Last Vermeer) exemplary costume design, toggling between working types and glamourous types is plenty seamless, most of the time.
All these elements stacked together make for a near-veritable musical experience, more deserving of a large screen than Cinderella. Thankfully Amazon will allow for a limited one-week cinema run first, as the true-life journey within Everybody’s Talking About Jamie soars to a comfortable cruising altitude, strutting in red pumps. After shaking off a few jitters with formulaic themes that still could’ve been better challenged, Butterell settles into a flashy, lyrical rhythm in the name of self-appreciation. The central themes are unsurprisingly familiar, but motivating, nonetheless. The musical prose is littered with catch bops to stir multiple emotions. And a focused cast collectively capture the frame, holding on until the credits roll. While it doesn’t provoke the mind, it still tickles the heart, even makes it cry. That might be plenty opulent to get the conversation started. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie opens in select theaters (in the Seattle market at Bellevue’s Lincoln Square) September, followed by streaming debut on Prime Video September 17; rated PG-13 for thematic elements, strong language, and suggestive material; 115 minutes.