Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – film review

Star debut by Max Harwood in a joyous fantasy film musical

★★★★

Still from film of Everybody's Talking ASbout Jamie showing Max Harwood
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Everybody should be talking about the film of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie but I suspect they won’t because it slipped through the cinemas and is now behind the firewall of Amazon Prime.

First thing to say, this is a movie in its own right, not simply a film of the stage show. It’s the story of a gay teenager verbally bullied at school and rejected by his homophobic father, but who finds liberation in dressing up in glamorous women’s clothing. The central message is a familiar one of allowing people- young people- to be themselves and fulfill their potential.

Like the stage show, it fetures the fabulous songs composed by Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling with lyrics from Jamie writer Tim MacRae. They’re energetic, liberating and someones melancholic, although some of the songs from the stage show failed to make the transition to celluloid.

The film is an impressive directorial debut for Jonathan Butterell who tells the story confidently and seamlessly switches from the mundane classroom and other day-to-day situations to the glorious fantasies of the songs in which Jamie imagines the life he should lead.

This is not about someone being ashamed of being gay. Jamie is confident in his sexuality, which is a sign of the progress that’s been made in the 50 years since same-sex relationships became legal. He even stands up to the homophobic class bully. No, his secret desire is to be a drag queen, or more immediately to wear a dress at the forthcoming prom.

It’s not entirely secret. His mother supports him and even buys him ruby encrusted shoes which must surely make us think of The Wizard Of Oz and that old euphemism for gay men, namely friends of Dorothy. His father too is aware but is ashamed of him, which has led to Jamie having a poor self image.

For me the most moving moment was a scene that’s not in the stage show. Jamie has met Hugo Battersby, an older drag queen, played by the great Richard E Grant as someone ‘battered’ by the past but still flamboyantly extrovert. He becomes Jamie’s mentor and shows him a VHS video from the late 80s. This wonderfully convincing, slightly blurry pastiche – complete with a new song- shows the protests against the Thatcher government’s discrimination against gay people, all in the midst of the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

In a nice touch, the transfixed Jamie and Hugo, at first reflected on the TV screen, become part of the video. It powerfully reminds us- and Jamie- that there were many battles fought by lesbian and gay people and much bravery in being ‘out’. It puts today’s problems in perspective. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants  Short as the scene is, the power of the song This Was Me and the sadness and defiance shown in the video moved me more than anything else in the film.

Max Harwood gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, the self deprecating, likeable  youngster who gradually gains the confidence to express himself. Also making an impressive feature film debut is Lauren Patel who plays his studious but vocal Muslim friend Priti.

They are well supported by some great veteran actors.  Sharon Horgan, seen recently on Channel 4 in the extraordinarily good This Way Up, is magnificent as the teacher who squashes the ambitions of her working class  students. There are two alumni from Coronation Street. Sarah Lancashire plays Jamie’s devoted mother with great warmth and sings the stand-out song – a kind of torch song- He’s My Boy, with depth and passion. The excellent Shobna Gulati plays her comic but forceful friend Ray. Ms Gulati is, I think, the only member of the  West End stage show to reprise a role in the film and incidentally she’s playing Ray in the current UK tour.

The story is predictable in both its course and outcome. In many ways you could describe it as a fairy tale and, in saying that, I’m not attempting a crass joke. What I mean is that everything works out just a little too well. The implausibility matters more in this film than it does in the original stage show where you are carried along by your emotional response to the songs and performances. Even so, this is a well-made and uplifting film, right up to the tear-in-the-eye ending.

And if you can’t see it in all its wide screen glory at the cinema, you can catch it streaming on Amazon Prime.

Watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights – film review

Feel-good movie hits the heights.

★★★★★

Still photo from the movie In The Heights showing Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera
Anthony Ramos & Melissa Barrera in In The Heights. Photo copyright Warner Bros Pictures

In The Heights is the most feel-good, uplifting movie I have seen in a long time.

It’s not a film of the stage show, it is a proper film in its own right, directed by Jon M Chu, who made Crazy Rich Asians. It’s packed with the most magnificent ensemble dancing build around stirring rap and Latin music and heartwarming stories about love and community. I know you may be tempted to wait to see it on your TV but I’m telling you, no matter how big your TV is, it will not do justice to the huge dance sequences nor that Latin beat.

It’s not quite sung-through but one song follows another so quickly that’s there are only short scenes of dialogue and then you’re on to another spectacular dance sequence. There’s dancing in the street, Fame style, there’s dancing in a club, Saturday Night Fever style, dancing on bleachers, Grease style,  and dancing in a swimming pool- Busby Berkeley style. You can see where the $55 million dollar budget went.

And there are romantic songs, the loveliest of which is between Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace, when they dance in a fantasy moment up the side of a building –La La Land style.

In The Heights started as a stage musical back in 2005, eventually opening on Broadway in 2008. It was Lin Manuel Miranda’s first hit, ten years before Hamilton.

Although there is a central character called Usnavi, a young man who owns the local store and is played with a delightfully shy manner by Anthony Ramos, this is the story of a Latinx neighbourhood in Washington Heights in north Manhattan. Almost equal weight is given to other members of the community, like the woman he fancies Vanessa, a vivacious performance by Melissa Barrera, his friend Benny played by the cool and handsome Corey Hawkins.

I don’t know why I’m saying he’s handsome because frankly, these are all highly attractive people. Like Nina who is the pride of the community because she has a place at  Stanford University. It’s a strong performance by Leslie Grace but she’s not only the cleverest person around, she’s also the most beautiful. Her father Kevin, the taxi business owner, is Mr Cool himself Jimmy Smits, for goodness sake, and Olga Merediz is the twinkling kind-faced matriarch of the community.

So what you don’t get are any horrible characters or any of the abrasiveness in relationships that can light up a movie with their sparks. It’s not that kind of movie. Having said that, the main characters have about as much depth as a paddling pool.

Arguably Quiara Alegría Hudes who wrote the book of the musical and wrote writes the movie screenplay. could have expanded on the characters because real people on stage carry you along much more easily than the close-up of people on film.

But it doesn’t really matter because the central character here is the community, one that answers discrimination by working hard and making a success of oneself. Yes, it’s a romantic ideal but it is an uplifting journey in which Usnavi, who longs to live in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, comes to realise the strengths of this little piece of Latin America in New York.

The action- and that’s not really the right word- builds up to an electricity blackout that occurs at the height of a very hot summer. And this is also the low point for the characters in the film- Nina having rejected financial help, a key character revealed as undocumented and therefore with limited prospects and the ever-present threat of repatriation, and Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship in peril. And that’s about as much tension as this happy film generates. The blackout changes everything as the people, at first resigned, rediscover their community and the ways they can support each other.

Although there is romance, this is very much a family film with hardly a suggestion of sex. However, the three women (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco) who run a nail bar forced out by gentrification, are not only funny, they strut their stuff in no uncertain way. They’re almost from a Carry On film and this is just one way in which this film feels like a throwback to an earlier time.  Nostalgia is sewn into its fabric.

If you want cheering up, this is just the tonic you need. I had a smile on my face throughout.

And by the way, don’t leave before the end of the credits because Lin Manuel Miranda’s character, the Piragua seller, makes a return appearance.

Watch this review on the YouTube channel one Minute Theatre Reviews

Romeo & Juliet with Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley – review

Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley shine in fast-moving Shakespeare film

★★★

Production photo of Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley in the National Theatre's film of Romeo and Juliet
Jessie Buckley & Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Rob Youngson

The National Theatre‘s Romeo & Juliet is another of the hybrids of theatre and film that have emerged during lockdown. In this case, William Shakespeare‘s play, directed by Simon Godwin,  is a film but filmed in the Lyttleton Theatre and as if it’s a spontaneous development from the rehearsal room.

As film, it is beautiful. The backgrounds are nearly always plain , often grey or black. In fact the colours generally are blue or grey, with faces brightly lit from the side, appropriately like  17th century portraits. Credit for the design goes to Soutra Gilmour.

The two lovers are wild and rash, as they should be. Jessie Buckley is intense with passion, Josh O’Connor overwhelmed with emotion. They have great faces which is great for the close-ups. Their scenes together- the balcony, the wedding, the consummation (the film features a lengthy lovemaking only alluded to in the original play) are all believably romantic.

Thank goodness because this is a Romeo & Juliet that strips away all it can from the surrounding story of adults who should protect the youngsters but instead are misguided, self-centred and irresponsible. We also lose Shakespeare’s intention to emphasise the ultimate reconciliation of two warring factions as they acknowledge their part in the death of their young heirs.

Some of the most glorious poetry is filleted. There’s no ‘light from yonder window’  breaking in Emily Burns’ adaptation.  Rather than rely on the verse that remains, there is a great deal of music, as if the makers didn’t trust Shakespeare’s words to convey feeling. Having said that, the music, which includes Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is superb.

The editing of text and film means this Romeo & Juliet goes at a terrific pace which is good because, in this play, you need to be carried along by the speed with which the youngsters fall deeply in love, get married and (spoiler alert) commit suicide.

Of the older actors, I particularly liked Tamsin Greig, playing the part that was Lord Capulet in the original. She’s cold, calm, as softly spoken as a snake, verging on a pantomime villain.

Deborah Findlay as the Nurse and Lucian Msamati as Friar Laurence both convey the way the adults miscalculate the situation because of their own desire to meddle. The great Adrian Lester has so little to do as the Prince, because of the cuts, that a cynic might say he’s only there to provide a star name.

Romeo & Juliet can be seen on Sky Arts catch-up and on PBS on 23 April

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – review

Chadwick Boseman gives towering performance in film of August Wilson’s play

★★★★

Promotional photo for the Netflix film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom showing Viola Davis and dancers
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis is a film of a play written by August Wilson in 1984.  Denzil Washington is one of the producers and he is known to be determined to bring all of the great playwright’s works to the screen. So how well did this play make the transition?

If you saw Fences which Denzil Washington himself starred in, you will have some idea of the style of this film, directed by George C Wolfe. It is more akin to a play being filmed, than a cinematic film, in that nearly everything happens on two sets. One is the recording studio, the other the green room in which the musicians chat and rehearse.

This needn’t be a bad thing. Film tells its story in pictures whereas theatre tells its story through people. And this is about people, two in particular. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is terrific. Ma Rainey is a successful blues singer in the Southern black community in the early 20th century. She knows where she stands and what she wants. She’s only in the recording studio because there is now interest in black music from northern white Americans and she can earn a buck from it.

‘They don’t care nothing about me, ‘ she says, ‘all they want is my voice’. If you know your musical history you’ll know that at that time people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were starting to write ragtime jazz inspired by, or stolen from if you prefer, black music. By the way, the music is fabulous.

Promotional shot for the Netflix film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom showing Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis
Chadwick Boseman & Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

By contrast we have the late Chadwick Boseman’s horn player Levee. He’s a complex character, and for me the more interesting of the two. He is confident, indeed cocky, about his ability to play and compose music. Even though he would be outstanding purely on the grounds of his playing, he still feels the need to dress to stand out, from his sharp suit right down to his flashy shoes.

August Wilson shows us a time early in the twentieth century, when, although segregation was illegal in the north, racial prejudice and the sense that white people formed a superior class weren’t. There’s a moment when two of the black musicians step into a bar that’s full of white people. They turn around and leave.  

Ma Rainey takes the lack of respect from white people in her stride, and just gets on with the job, and can’t wait to go home. Levee is more ambitious and sees opportunities in this new era where black music has a wider appeal – like the black bottom song and dance of the title.

The subtlety and authenticity of Mr Boseman’s performance reminds you of what a loss this man is to the world of acting. You see his brittle surface, but you soon find out about the trauma he suffered as a child as a result of white racism. So the actor conveys a tremendous feeling that there is a coiled spring just waiting to burst through the swaggering veneer. It leads to arguments in both the studio and the green room. And that tension runs throughout the play until its dramatic climax.

The only weakness is the one I mentioned earlier. This is a film of a play and whereas in the theatre you would be carried along by the sequence of events because you’re in the same room with the characters, those events seem a little melodramatic because of the separation of the screen.

So I don’t feel it’s quite a five star film but no question  Chadwick Boseman gives a five star performance.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix.

Click here to watch  this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews