Composer Dan Gillespie Sells says he wanted to tell the story of young Jamie Campbell in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” because the central protagonist is heroic and not victimized.
In the film — now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — Jamie (Max Harwood) is a 16-year-old who dreams of becoming a drag queen. Sells, who worked on the music for the West End production and movie, says, “There are none of these victim tropes that we often get in LGBT stories.” Instead, it is a hopeful and inspiring tale of a character confident in himself.
“We put a lot of ourselves in him,” Sells says of his collaboration with director Jonathan Butterell and Tom McRae who wrote the music and lyrics. “That’s what allows me to be able to write these songs for him because I connected with him.”
Sells, who is also a member of the band the Feeling, talks about the music for the film, having Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood sing, and why he fused in pop music into it.
Let’s start with the new song for the film, ‘This Was Me.’ What was the genesis for it?
There was this moment in the play where we wanted to explore [Jamie’s mentor] Hugo’s backstory. By doing that, it gave Jamie this sense of what drag can be about, more than just dressing up and its history. In the version we did on stage, we would never have been able to achieve what we can achieve in the film, and we wanted a different moment and a new song for that, because we were going to show audiences Hugo’s backstory and a flashback would never have worked on stage.
What was the story you wanted to tell with that song?
It was the story about a mentor explaining to a young queer kid what it was to be queer in London in the ‘80s and early ‘90s with HIV and the AIDS epidemic. It was a song about the section 28 rules, the marches, the demonstrations where drag queens were always a part of. It was about the raids on queer venues by the police. We wanted to show that it was an embattled culture that was part of Hugo’s history. We teach Jamie elements of drag, and that it’s more than just a TV show. It was important to bring that into the story.
What about “He’s My Boy,” where did that idea come from to have this moment between mother and son?
It’s a line in the documentary when Jamie’s mother Margaret says, ‘He’s my boy and I love him.’ It’s a very simple phrase and was the first song we wrote.
We knew that we were going to have the experience of a mother having this extraordinary and unusual kid, who is brilliant and a nightmare at the same time. It’s the complexity of parenthood. What’s interesting is that Tom, Jonathan and I all have very strong mothers. I was raised by two women, so I have two mothers. My fellow collaborators on this also have very strong maternal figures in their lives, and I think we knew a fair bit about motherhood. We felt we knew enough that we were able to say, “This is the kind of things our moms would say.: It speaks of motherhood in such a simple way we felt was necessary for her to have a voice.
The film infuses the spirit of Jamie Campbell, but how did you capture that through music and his journey?
Each character had its own sound. I wanted to explore what each character’s version of their pop star was. Each had its vibrancy. Jamie was pure pop, British pop. The whole piece is written in the pop vernacular for two reasons. We wrote it for a working-class audience, the ordinary folk who listened to ordinary music that you hear on the radio.
I love pop music because it is so incredibly sophisticated and it draws you in. There aren’t any barriers to it. Jonathan could see what I write and what I love is the kind of music that lets everyone be a part of it. Hopefully, with Tom’s brilliant lyrics and with a little bit of craft, you can tell story with that.
What has this journey been like for you, bringing this from fringe theatre to stage and to the big screen?
The whole thing has been a dream. There have been so many highlights so many moments in which you say, “OK, I can’t believe this is happening.” From writing the play seven years ago, every part of it has been thrilling.
Getting Holly Johnson to sing the vocal on the song so that you have that Frankie Goes to Hollywood sound running through that storytelling and trying to bring a bit of depth and authenticity to this was just a real honor.
There were so many moments. Jamie’s story is the gift that keeps on giving.