Inside 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie's' moving tribute to the AIDS generation

·5 min read

The following story contains spoilers from the movie “Everybody's Talking About Jamie.”

"Everybody's Talking About Jamie" centers on a small-town teen as he makes his drag debut, thanks to the help of a key mentor. "You can't just be a boy in a dress, Jamie," says Richard E. Grant. "A boy in a dress is something to be laughed at, a drag queen is something to be feared. You wouldn't believe the power it gives you."

That power is illustrated in "This Was Me," a new song written for the Amazon musical that pays homage to all the joys and pains of queer life in the ’80s and ’90s: the AIDS crisis, Freddie Mercury's death; falling in love and embracing sexual freedom. Its accompanying sequence, complete with stirring visuals and poignant performances, is both an efficient education for Jamie and an emotional highlight of the movie.

"Jamie, very innocently, hasn't quite grasped the depth of what drag is, that some of that glamour is actually war paint," says director Jonathan Butterell, who also helmed the British stage show from which the movie is adapted. "Here's a chance for him to catch up. There's nothing wrong with not knowing your history; there's something wrong in not being open and interested to learn it."

"This Was Me" is mostly performed by former Frankie Goes To Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson and acts as a needle drop for the unique montage. "We wanted a song that transports you back to that moment," says composer Dan Gillespie Sells. "It's interesting — that time of profound loss was accompanied by this fall-on-the-floor disco beat. It was euphoric, but also terribly sad. So we created this ballad that's ready for the clubs."

The song plays as Grant's character Hugo shows Jamie footage of his heyday as glamorous drag queen Loco Chanelle, as filmed by his lover. "Every sorrow had a song, every lost boy could belong, we were young and never wrong, and I was divine," go the lyrics, as police make arrests in a crowded club, a stand-in for London's Vauxhall Tavern.

"They had these amazing parties to bury the dead and to give them the strength to keep going," said lyricist and screenwriter Tom MacRae. "They were scared and angry but also immensely courageous, because painting on a smile when what you really want to do scream and cry is a subversive act."

The sequence continues with Loco Chanelle — portrayed by John McCrea, the actor who originated Jamie onstage — sharing a hug with the influential artist David Hoyle, protesting against Margaret Thatcher's Section 28 law, mourning the death of Mercury. "I remember how cruel people were about that," recalls MacRae. "He had made people so happy, and people turned on him because of what he died from, as if he were suddenly a bad person."

Sprinkled amid the historical recreations are archival shots of partygoers at drag clubs Kinky Gerlinky and Heaven, and Princess Diana's groundbreaking visits with AIDS patients. "She took off her gloves and held people's hands, she sat down to look them in the eyes while talking with them," explains Butterell. "I wanted to acknowledge that she was radical, doing things nobody else was doing or would do at the time."

Grant's Hugo and Jamie (Max Harwood) are transported into many of these scenes and occasionally interact with Loco Chanelle. While Jamie appears wide-eyed while experiencing it all for the first time, Hugo seems both delighted and pained to revisit his past. This is especially true in the song's final scene, as everyone gathers in a hospital room to cheer up the cameraman, who is dying of AIDS.

"The whole story of this man's love life is told in the space of a three-minute song," says Grant. "He's at an age when he's got more past than future ahead of him. To physically be back in these very private moments, it's wonderful for him at times but by the end, it's absolutely unbearable that he can't even look at it and has to look away."

By the end of the song, Hugo's eyes are teary, his hands are shaking as he removes the VHS tape they just watched. Jamie, overwhelmed, apologizes to Hugo and flees the scene. "It cost Hugo something to tell Jamie that story," says Butterell. "Was it too much? Was it too intimate? Did he go too far? It's such a complex moment, and Richard holds it so beautifully."

The intimate, vulnerable "This Was Me" replaces the West End stage show's campy spectacle "The Legend of Loco Chanelle (and the Blood Red Dress)." It also tweaks Hugo's backstory: "This is about losing a lover to a vicious, horrible disease that the government didn't care enough about to do anything, and the stage version is about losing a lover to infidelity," explains McCrea.

It's a sequence that educates Jamie, who previously idolized drag queens via "RuPaul's Drag Race." And for the viewer, "it's political without it being agitprop, because it's so moving," says Grant. "I think it was a very smart thing to have done because it anchors the potential frivolity of the movie, right in the middle of it all."

The cast and creatives hope "This Was Me" stresses the importance of queer history and community that spans generations. "Pride is not what it used to be — I'm still quite young but I do remember a time where it wasn't all about Facebook and Grindr and Instagram and I'm aching for those days," says McCrea.

"If we looked up to and valued our elders a bit more than I think we do sometimes, we'd have a wealth of knowledge that we wouldn't be able to find anywhere else. These people marched and got beaten up by police so that we could have the freedom to go to a gay club and snog a stranger. How lucky we are that these people fought for us."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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