Around seven years ago, Jonathan Butterell had a “serendipitous” moment when watching television – and that incredible chance encounter gave birth to the new film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
The acclaimed choreographer and stage director was flicking through television channels when he stumbled across Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.
“The opening shot is Jamie [Campbell] getting on the bus in a working-class community in a school uniform,” Butterell tells PinkNews. “He gets off the bus and says, ‘My name is Jamie. I have a secret – I want to be a drag queen.’ And it pans down and he’s in his school uniform wearing the most fabulous pair of drag heels.”
That remarkable moment immediately grabbed Butterell and pulled him into Campbell’s story.
“I watched the love and support of his mum, and the unconditional love, and she didn’t fully understand the whole thing – but she was there to completely and utterly support her child,” Butterell says.
“And then I watched the community around him make a shift, and allow him to take that joy into that community.”
Straight away, Butterell knew he had to tell Jamie Campbell’s story on the stage. It became the Olivier-nominated musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which debuted in Sheffield before transferring to the West End. Now, it’s moved once more to the big (streaming) screen, as a celebratory, fun-filled film of the same name.
Jamie fights against tired gender norms and internalised shame
Butterell, who grew up in a working-class part of Sheffield, immediately related to Campbell’s story. Because of his own experience of growing up gay, Butterell knew just how big a statement it was for Campbell to tell the world who he really was.
“I felt inspired, and I found two collaborators – Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae – and we all found commonality in that story. We’re all different, but we saw something of Jamie in ourselves, and we wanted to tell that story.”
In Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Butterell’s protagonist rails against gender norms and fights tirelessly for the right to express himself in exactly the way he sees fit. In one song, he sings about being a “gender bending” and “gender-ending” work of art.
Butterell is clear that Jamie is cis – but he also feels that he’s a character who is fundamentally aware of the tiresome constraints society places on gender.
“Jamie is a cis boy, that’s how he sees himself, he’s clearly that – but he knows what community he’s part of, and it’s a wide-ranging, beautiful, complex community,” Butterell says.
“He can only tell his part of that story but he gets that we’re part of a wider… conversation abut how we identify ourselves, how we see ourselves in the world, what is our place in the world, where [do] we actually belong. I wanted not to in any way flag wave because I didn’t feel the need to flag wave. Our beautiful diverse world is here – we are part of it, we belong in it, as it says in the film, in the place that we belong.”
While Jamie is generally unabashedly queer, he also holds a great deal of internalised shame – much of it coming from his strained relationship with his father. That shame “is not related to being gay”, Butterell says – instead, it’s part of the human condition.
“When shame goes in, in whichever way it goes in, it shifts us, and with that shame comes fear,” he says. “And I think at the heart of this, and what I would love for people to take away, is joy. If you bring the joy in then hopefully that fear can make a shift and then the shame starts going… People who bring criticism of our community are coming from a place of shame themselves,” he adds.
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As well as confronting (and vanquishing) tired gender norms and shame, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is also a love letter to the relationship between mother and son. Butterell and his collaborators found so much warmth in the heartfelt, beautiful relationship between Campbell and his mum in the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. They wanted to bring some of that magic to the screen by incorporating their own experiences being raised by warm, loving mothers.
“Dan, Tom and I saw that in ourselves,” Butterell says, reflecting on Jamie’s relationship with his mum. “We probably saw that in our own mothers, so we were blessed with that. Dan has two mums, so he doubled up.
“It’s a complex relationship, of course, because there’s that moment particularly around 16 that you want to take flight, you want to leave the nest, and particularly for a mother, that’s a complex and frightening experience because as they leave the nest – particularly if you’re leaving the nest in a pair of fabulous heels that are literally and metaphorically hard to walk out into the world in – there’s a fear that comes with that. And you have to overcome that fear through your own love of that child, and trust in that child, and trust in that child’s courage. We just wanted to capture a part of that.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie confronts queer history and the AIDS epidemic
While Everybody’s Talking About Jamie predominantly focuses on one teenage boy’s journey to becoming a drag queen, it’s also unafraid to draw attention to his lack of knowledge about the past. In one particularly moving sequence, Jamie meets Hugo Battersby (Richard E Grant), an ageing drag queen who lived through the AIDS epidemic. Grant’s character sings a deeply affecting song reflecting on the plague that wiped out so many queer people. It is a powerful moment – and Butterell’s reasons for including it are deeply personal.
“I think it’s important that all generations pass on stories,” he says. “I think it’s vital to know what’s gone before and where we are now is a result of what’s gone on before. Of course it’s a generational story, and I’m part of that generation. I was on those Section 28 marches.”
He continues: “I lost friends. I lost friend when they were young – I mean very young. And I wanted to make sure their story is part of this story and continues, because they didn’t get to share their joy – their joy was stripped away from them by that awful, awful disease.
“I wanted to make sure that the legacy of that goes forwards and goes into a new generation.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is released on Amazon Prime Video on 17 September.