The Greatest Showman is a pretty dumb musical. It tells a highly fictionalised version of the life of P.T. Barnum, a man with little 21st century relevance, whose primary commercial enterprise basically no longer exists. It renders him as a plucky dreamer with an enlightened view of the motley assortment of people he’s gathered, rather than the jerk all other evidence seems to suggest he was. The film makes multiple stabs at teaching us good progressive lessons, like tolerating people of other appearances and body types, but they usually feel like featherweight afterthoughts. And a number of absurd moments might make a viewer laugh out loud.
But damn, are there some good songs.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the new Amazon original film, has the opposite problem. What it’s about is really important. It dramatises the true story of a Sheffield teenager who aspired to become a drag queen, whose dad and some of his community rejected him for the feminine parts of his identity, but who blossomed under the support of his mum and some key friends. Some of its details actually feel a bit quaint now, but that’s because the original stage show – with book and lyrics by Tom MacRae, and music by Dan Gillespie Sells – was inspired by a 2011 TV documentary on the real Jamie New. Once we realise the events are in the context of a slightly earlier era, making Jonathan Butterell‘s film something of a period piece, its relevance shoots right back up again.
Unfortunately, its songs are pretty shit.
If a musical lives and dies on the strength of its musical numbers, then Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has a couple near-death experiences. Even with numbers vibrantly staged as cutaway fantasy sequences, including classrooms of teenagers in school unis serving as backup dancers, it’s hard to overlook the wan quality of many of these songs. It’s not that MacRae and Sells have no clue how to compose a musical number and place it within the story to serve the story’s dramatic flow. It’s just that their efforts yield bad results. Their not-ready-for-primetime music and lyrics aren’t helped by chintzy instrumentalisation and singers of varying abilities.
All this is very distressing, as the film profiles as a joyous and triumphant trumpeting of LGBTQ pride that the world needs more of. And to be certain, the film is worth watching for that reason. But when you feel like a film could have had it all, it’s a little disappointing when you have to settle for less than that. Of course, a filmed version of a musical can’t generate music or lyrics that weren’t there in the original source material.
That the songs aren’t better feels especially out of sync with the film’s themes. The essence of the drag queen aesthetic is flamboyant and larger than life, where the very fabulousness of the music is the driving force – along with the wigs, the makeup, the dresses, the high heels and the various prosthetics, of course. A movie like this deserves equally outsized music, and it just doesn’t get it.
Instead of continuing to harp on MaRae’s and Sells’ shortcomings, we can focus our attention on what Everybody’s Talking About Jamie gets right. Newcomer Max Harwood in the title role is a start. There’s a timidity to his performance at first, but that tracks with the character’s fears of what awaits him if he shares his ambitions with anyone other than his mum (Sarah Lancashire) and his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel). But it’s not just your standard bullies (Samuel Bottomley) who make him tentative; even seemingly supportive teachers, such as the one played by Sharon Horgan, crush his spirits when he says he wants to be a “performer,” and she interprets that as yet another unrealistic dreamer who thinks fame and fortune await on YouTube.
As Jamie meets a former drag queen who runs a costume shop, played with excellent joie de vivre by legend Richard E. Grant, he finds his confidence under the tutelage of his new mentor, and the actor comes out of his shell as well. The parts of this film related to him finding his drag persona, including his struggles with coming up with a stage name, are all great. They also include the film’s more emotionally potent passages, as Grant’s character looks back to his own 1980s/early 1990s heyday as a performer, and specifically how he lost loved ones to the AIDS crisis.
The stuff at Jamie’s school is a bit more uneven. The quaintness enters into it during a scene with Pritti in which he shows her a pair of sparklingly red pumps, sort of like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, that his mum got him for his just passed 16th birthday. (Go mum!) The fact that Pritti cannot immediately embrace his drag ambitions is realistic, maybe, since she’s a Muslim who wears a headscarf to school, and is pretty traditional and studious. The fact that she’s surprised by them is what rings sort of false. If she really was Jamie’s BFF since childhood, wouldn’t she know he likes to dress up as a girl? In some ways like this, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels more like a film that would have been made 20 years ago, around the time Kinky Boots came out, than one made in 2021.
These are the sort of faults you can easily forgive in light of the film’s overall mission. The songs impeding that mission are a more difficult pill to swallow. However, there are occasional exceptions to that rule. The title song is a real toe-tapper, the only song likely to linger after the credits roll, and just at the right time, a duet between Jamie and his mum – it’s hard to overstate what a legend she is – sticks the emotional landing. There are always going to be dickhead dads who disown you and bullies who threaten you because they are threatened by you. But if every would-be drag queen had one person in their life like Margaret New, it would be cause for much singing and dancing indeed.