In 2011, 16-year-old Jamie Campbell caused a stir when he attended his high school prom in drag. Growing up in the village of Toronto near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, England, Campbell had come out at 14, and had faced bullying from his classmates as well as indifference and disdain from school officials.
Campbell’s story was captured in the BBC documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,” which followed the teenager as he prepared for the nerve-wracking event, only to discover his act of utter bravery inspired people all over the world.
One of them was the writer Tom MacRae, best known for his work on “Doctor Who” and for creating the sitcom “Threesome.” Watching the end of the documentary, in which Jamie’s classmates embrace him and demand he be let into the prom, proved to be a magical moment for MacRae. “A real-life unexpected fairy tale,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘This is a story I have to tell.’”
Joining forces with musician Dan Gillespie Sells of the rock group the Feeling, MacRae wrote the lyrics and script for “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” which premiered in 2017 and is still running in London’s West End. A film adaptation directed by Jonathan Butterell premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 17.
MacRae adapted his book into a screenplay that preserves the unabashedly optimistic spirit of the stage version. In the film, Jamie (Max Harwood) finds refuge from prejudice in his supportive mom Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) and in Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant), a former drag queen who takes Jamie under his wing.
In moving the story from stage to screen, MacRae discovered he could imbue the characters with nuance while taking advantage of the larger-than-life feeling of cinema, both scales that don’t exist onstage. “In film, you can have a fantastic close-up that makes intimate moments more intimate,” he said, “and then great big massive stuff like 3,000 people at a street party.”
In a year that’s reminded audiences of the undeniable power of film musicals, “Jamie” arrives in a cloud of glitter and joy. The numbers, ranging from infectious pop songs to heartwarming ballads, recall the spectacle of big Hollywood musicals filtered through a bright ‘80s esthetic.
Despite touching on dark subject matters, MacRae delivers a tale that can’t help but move and inspire.
Film also granted him the opportunity to discover new things about the characters he was already so familiar with. Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), Jamie’s teacher, who antagonizes him at every turn, is more “fleshed out,” said MacRae. “I wanted her motivations to be clearer. She’s not a ‘baddie,’ she just has a different point of view from Jamie,” he said.
Besides the West End production and a U.K. tour set to continue through the spring of 2022, the musical has also been staged in South Korea and Japan. Its American premiere is set for the winter of 2022 and an Australian tour was rescheduled due to the pandemic.
“Nothing beats the feeling of having a live show happening right in front of you,” said MacRae, “so I’ve loved being able to translate ‘Jamie’ into both forms.”
It’s become the norm that adaptations of stage musicals feature new songs; this time some reprises and songs have been cut from the movie to make room for “This Was Me,” a rousing disco-infused anthem performed by Holly Johnson, which was the first of the revised pieces MacRae and Sells wrote for the film.
“We knew Jamie’s world so well by the time we revisited the songs for the film that it was a very different process from writing the stage songs,” explained MacRae.
Luckily, “He’s My Boy,” a love song from a mother to her child sung by Margaret, made the cut. “That was the first song we wrote for the stage musical,” said MacRae. “I guess we like starting with songs that have three-word titles.”
Inspired by musicals like “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Grease” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the film transports viewers to a world where life’s troubles feel a little bit easier to handle, where it seems possible to escape darkness, where kindness is the only option. “The thought that ‘Jamie’ (in its cinematic form) could live on beyond us all and keep spreading his message of joy and positivity is just magical,” said MacRae.
After all, the spirit of a courageous drag performer has lived with him for so long that the character “is an amalgamation of me, Dan, Jonathan and the real Jamie,” said MacRae. “He’s a hybrid of our worst and best parts.”
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