Synopsis: Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.
Stars: Renée Zellweger, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey
Director: Rupert Goold
Running Length: 118 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s so strange to look back at this same point last year before Bohemian Rhapsody had been released. The buzz on the movie wasn’t great and star Rami Malek impressed in photos as late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, but how would he be in action? We all know how that turned out: with Malek mystifyingly sailing into a Best Actor Oscar win for a hammy performance in a heavily sanitized biopic…and he didn’t do any of his own singing. Then came Rocketman in May of this year and the same narrative preceded it into theaters, scrutinizing leading man Taron Egerton taking on the role of rock icon Elton John. Though not the huge box office hit that Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman was better in all aspects…and Egerton did all his own singing. Now we have Judy and it falls somewhere in the middle. As far as biographies go, it offers a standard narrative without much flash but it’s got something the other two films doesn’t. Renée Zellweger.
We’ve really had a huge exposure to Judy Garland in the 50 years since she died at the too-young age of 47. There have been TV specials, TV movies, stage plays, stage musicals, drag performers, impressionists, etc., all celebrating that famous face with the instantly recognizable voice. Garland’s star burned bright in her years as a juvenile box office darling for MGM appearing in The Wizard of Oz and alongside Mickey Rooney in a number of “let’s put on a show” musicals. While she made the transition to adult roles just fine, her time in the studio system came at a price. Years of diet pills and amphetamines given to her by handlers laid the groundwork for substance abuse issues that would follow her for the rest of her life. When Garland finally succumbed to her addiction, she had gone through five husbands and left behind three children.
Aside from a few flashbacks to her childhood memories at MGM involving interactions with Louis B. Mayer, a fake date with Rooney for the newsreels, and even a birthday party held months in advance that’s fit into her shooting schedule, the majority of Judy is set in 1968 when Garland came to London. Desperate for cash and needing to be financially stable enough to continue to have custody of her two youngest children, she accepts an offer for a long-term engagement at the popular Talk of the Town nightclub. She’s set up in a lavish hotel room and put under the watchful eye of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who is more than aware of Garland’s antics. With her reputation for being late and showing up less than sober preceding her, Judy tries to stay on the straight and narrow but a lifetime of dependency is hard to quit cold turkey. The shows suffer, she suffers. When new flame Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, Unbroken) appears in her life there’s a glimmer of newfound happiness but the darkness eventually creeps back in.
The movie is based on the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter which I saw in its American premiere at The Guthrie Theater in 2012. I remember it being a devastating trip through Garland’s tortured final months and was expecting the film to be in the same melancholy vein. Surprisingly, the screenplay from Tom Edge isn’t into wallowing and feels most focused when it showcases Garland triumphing over her setbacks, many of her own making. Yes, it’s difficult to watch multiple scenes of Garland stumbling through her sets and suffering the indignity of having food thrown at her (those cheeky Brits!) but at least the screenplay leaves out a few of the harsher incidents that were documented, including an irate patron getting up onstage and shaking Garland by her shoulders. If anything, Edge throws in maybe one too many Good Garland moments, such as a fictionalized one where the singer accompanies a gay couple back to their flat after they waited for her at the stage door. It’s nice to see her out of her element, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about her…though Edge does tie this outing to a bit of business in the end in a rather clunky manner.
Had it not been for its leading performance, Judy would likely have been included in the pile of middling biopics that seem to pop up every few years. However, with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland the entire film is elevated to another level. Over the years, Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) has somehow gotten a bad rap from people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. She’s reliably good in nearly everything she’s done and has multiple Oscar noms and one win to prove it. All that she’s done before pales in comparison to the performance she gives here and it will surely knock your socks off. She may not sing quite like Garland, (her vocal register is higher), but who really does? She may not always look exactly like her, though the majority of the time it’s downright uncanny how much she resembles the singer. More than anything, Zellweger has found what I think is the soul of Garland and brought that forth – it goes far beyond a mere impersonation or recreation of signature moves. The first time she sings, really sings, in character on stage is watershed moment for the movie and Zellweger as an actress. At this point, it’s safe to say she’s a lock for an Oscar nomination and I can’t see anyone putting up much of a fight to beat her.
Yet one wishes the movie were as solid and satisfying as Zellweger’s performance. As directed by Rupert Goold, there’s not much pizzazz to be found when Zellweger isn’t on screen so it’s a good thing she’s rarely out of sight. Like the audiences in London all those years ago, you’re coming to see Judy Garland and Goold and company make sure she’s front and center as much as possible. London in the late ’60s is recreated well, but it’s an awfully gloomy view of the town with the sun rarely shining. The supporting players are serviceable, with Buckley as her increasingly unamused babysitter faring the best. Earlier this year, Buckley also gave a thrilling musical performance in Wild Rose and might find herself competing against Zellweger for one or two awards.
Culminating with a truly breathtaking final 10 minutes that expose the heart of Garland’s deep vulnerability, it’s easy to excuse some of Judy’s more melodramatic moments along the way. I found Zellweger to be downright mesmerizing as the troubled singer and am looking forward to watching her victory lap over the next few months. Judy Garland sadly never won an Oscar the two times she was nominated (that she didn’t emerge victorious for 1954’s A Star is Born is an absolute crime!) but hopefully Zellweger winning one for playing Garland will make up just a teeny bit for that.