Another “coming out” tale, another dive into drag?
Another relentlessly upbeat and empowering pop anthem-packed musical?
Another hero who craves fame, the spotlight, who answers the call to perform only he can hear?
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” can seem dated and cute and quaint and faintly irritating. The songs are pleasantly forgettable in the modern style. But the pathologically upbeat are often the heroes of the most insipid musicals and can be wearing to spend two hours with.
Here, even the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley) feels defanged, the “rules are rules” teacher-villainess (Sharon Horgan of TV’s “Catastrophe”) isn’t so much intolerant as annoyed at the spotlight-hogging diva in her class.
And yet “Jamie,” the London West End hit about a Sheffield teen who craves the spotlight and longs to be a drag queen, overcomes those cloying, built-in irritants and wins you over in spite of itself.
It was based on a documentary (sampled in the closing credits) about an aspiring teen drag queen that came out a decade ago — which accounts for the somewhat dated feel of it all. “Kinky Boots,” the movie, came out in 2005 and was turned into a musical in 2012, after all. But sometimes we need to be reminded of the breathtaking pace of social change and tolerance.
Nicely “opened up” from the stage production by choreographer-turned-director Jonathan Butterell, “Jamie” bounces by, amuses occasionally and touches often by remembering a little history and underscoring “how much things have changed.”
It’s the story of Jamie New, played by screen newcomer Max Harwood, a daydreaming 16 year old whose life goal, which he dare not reveal in “careers” class, is to become a drag queen and an “Insta(gram)” star. With classmates named Denzel and Tyson and more than a few kids sure they’ll find their way to “Britain’s Got Talent,” it’s no wonder Miss Hedge (Harwood) is at her wit’s end trying to impose “realistic expectations” and “real jobs” goals on this lot.
Jamie’s BFF Pitti (Lauren Patel), a Muslim with a Hindu first name (“Thanks, Mum and Dad!”), might be the only one with things figured out. She’s determined to get into med school and become a doctor. Her first mission, the self-centered Jamie believes, is being “the best friend a boy who sometimes wants to be a girl could wish for.”
His Mum (Sarah Lancashire) dotes on him, and covers for the fact that his divorced Dad (Ralph Ineson) wants nothing to do with him. Jamie has an idea, but lives under the illusion that his father is supportive, no matter what.
The kid tests the dress code at school, easily fends off what bullying there is, and finally figures out a public way of acknowledging his life’s goal. He’ll come to prom in drag.
That’s how he meets the proprietor of the House of Loco, an aged queen played and sung by Richard E. Grant. In the film’s stand-out performance and best number, he croons a history lesson which is exactly what “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is about.
“Let me tell you how it used to go, Freddie played on the radio,” Hugo, aka Loco Chanelle, sings. “The Iron Lady couldn’t stop the show.”
In fashbacks presented as old show footage, and news coverage of protests, he teaches Jamie whose shoulders he’s standing on in his new ruby red heels, the activists who wore drag as armor, the “warrior queens of the ’80s.”
The “I’m gonna be the one, I’m gonna kiss the sun” numbers are plentiful and generic, but well-staged and choreographed. The show didn’t get to me until Patel’s Pitti sings more downbeat but still hopeful numbers, that “I know that somewhere, they’re ‘playing your song.'”
The show’s structure is “get him to the prom” by overcoming obstacles banal. But to get Jamie there, he needs a mentor. This is how Grant makes the picture, a veteran character actor who’s made fey fops a specialty, his lectures about “You can’t just be a boy in a dress,” dig into drag in winning and informative ways.
“Shoot first, or they’ll shoot you,” Hugo declares, noting the “warrior” (hurling insults from the stage) nature of his generation of drag, when it was “not just a TV show, it was a revolution!”
Patel turns a “straight best friend” cliche into a quietly compelling sounding board, and never lets us see the wheels turning.
And Harwood does well enough by a preening character who is as capable of teen cruelty as any classmate, and frankly often unlikable.
That sort of applies to “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” too. This predictable predicament, that flash of foreshadowed bullying threaten to bring it to a halt. It meanders about, plays as entirely too tame, tries too hard to be adorable at times.
That it still manages to tickle and touch the heart is its own minor miracle.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, strong language and suggestive material
Cast: Max Harwood, Lauren Patel, Sharon Horgan, Sarah Lancashire, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Bottomley, Karen Horgan and Richard E. Grant.
Credits: Directed by Jonathan Butterell, scripted by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells, based on their stage musical. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:56