As someone who claims to like discovering new cinematic experiences, it does good to watch a film that really isn’t aimed at you from time to time. So, I ended up watching a musical that was causing a lot of fuss and wasn’t the one I’m trying to raise money for Crisis with. The end result was mostly enjoyable, but it was very far nearer a call than I expected.
Things started with the amuse-bouche of a title card reading “This story really happened. Then we added the singing and dancing”, which both intrigued and set the quirky theatre-kid vibes that were going to be present from there on in. I knew from the hype that it was based on a real event, but I wasn’t quite ready for how real it actually was. This wasn’t a grand tale of harsh oppression and saddening death of larger productions, this was about the small-scale, constantly soul-grinding bullshit that the LGBTQ+ community has to put up with on a daily basis. Frankly, that made it bloody great.
The cast also helps, as there isn’t one of them who doesn’t fight their way through the material they’ve been given. Max Harwood, as the titular Jamie, holds the whole thing together, being aided by his well-meaning mum (Sarah Lancashire) and fellow-outsider-by-dint-of-being-Muslim (Lauren Patel). Richard E. Grant also does a grand turn as Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle, the finest drag Obi-Wan this side of The Pennines, even if his big number isn’t as big as it could have been.
The villains are also, mostly, suitably impressive. Samuel Bottomley catches the dreary monotony and “one joke” repetitiveness of schoolyard homophobic abuse as Dean Paxton, school bully, and utter dick. Ralph Ineson pulls off a subtle performance as Wayne New, the dad who abandoned Jamie and his mum because he found out his son was gay. He keeps the brakes on what could have been a monstrous villain, producing a realistic level of mean-spiritedness and pathetic behaviour. Unfortunately, this is thrown out the window by Miss Hedges (Sharon Horgan); a gestalt amalgamation of repressive teaching practices that are so inconsistently written as to become a caricature. This would be fine were she not the antagonist of the plot, banning Jamie from attending the school ball in drag, so the eventual conclusion being such a squib seems to be a function of how the dice rolled that day.
It’s a shame because all the other characters are really well written and come across as complicated, nuanced, minorly flawed, and believable people. This includes Jamie, who at one point acts like an absolute arse because he’s 16 and that’s when people act like absolute arses. It’s a brave and real moment, and probably where I feel under the film’s spell. That and his duet with his mum about the troubles of growing up was when I worked out who the film was really for: LGBTQ+ teenagers and their parents to watch together and gain a deeper understanding of both sides of that world. Although everyone else is clearly quite welcome for the ride.
It was also then when I realised why the music for the film was so tepid, which is not a great thing when it’s a musical. To backtrack: the soundtrack started okay to mild, but when Richard E Grant had his solo, it maintained a tepidity that I just couldn’t gel with. The lyrics were amazing, a heart-wrenching 3-minute history of gay life in the 80s to early 90s. The music was like someone had taken Video Killed The Radio Star and Welcome To The Pleasure Dome and beaten all the dynamism and edge out of them with a lump hammer until they were as flat as Yorkshire isn’t. This continues throughout the movie; great lyrics, inoffensive jingle music that sucks the life from the singers’ efforts but means you can watch the film with anyone and they won’t get put off the plot by the audio wallpaper.
At this point, someone reading this will probably think “oh, but it’s like that in the stage show and that’s well good”. That’s true, but stage show music is always better in the theatre because they’re doing it live. The same can be said of the dance numbers; they erupt and everyone joins in, but they try and maintain a level of realness that always looks awkward. The few times the film really gives in and makes use of cinematic potential it’s fantastic and doesn’t break the emersion, so I wish they had done that a bit more. I also wish Dean Paxton had got brought up more on his ableist language, not just his homophobia and racism. His abuse was clearly used to make him look bad, but it would have been nice for him to have been taken down for everything he threw; or why else have him say it?
Clearly, though, none of the above was a deal-breaker for me as I enjoyed the film, even though with the musical element getting under its own feet from time to time. It was a remarkably well-written and delivered story, with just the right levels of life-defining immediacy and mild peril that being a 16-year-old deserves. It did drag at certain points, but it kept on pulling me back in and I can forgive that as I know it’ll all make someone else’s day.