Judy Garland was 16 when she made her breakout film, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. She was only 32 when she made her first official “comeback” and nearly won an Academy Award with the first remake of A Star is Born in 1954. In ’62 she became the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her live recording at Carnegie Hall. Seven years later she was homeless and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, eventually passing away of a drug overdose after struggling with addiction. She was simultaneously one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and one of its most harrowing cautionary tales.
In Judy, Rupert Goold’s biopic centering on her five-week series of concerts in London mere months before she would pass, a character flirtingly refers to her as “the greatest entertainer in the world.” She faux-humbly responds by deferring the title to Frank Sinatra, but his amorous attempt at flattery wasn’t inaccurate. Garland was a singular talent, with an unmistakable voice, incredible showmanship, and enough screen presence and acting depth to shine even opposite the likes of Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly and James Mason. Though Goold’s film only covers the end of her career, it manages to capture Garland in all of her glory, but also illustrates the destructive forces that took her from us so young.
The draw here is Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Garland, herself having a bit of her own comeback after a six year hiatus at the start of the decade. The Academy Award winner’s performance at first takes some getting used to, as her Garland is somewhat broad in the early goings. But as the film carries on, Zellweger adds layers to her performance, doing more than just an empty impression. Her vulnerability and fire turn Garland into a real human being, a flesh and blood person who feels love, pain, passion, and immense sadness.1
Where she, the film, and Goold’s direction truly shine is in the musical numbers. It feels par for the course to describe a musician biopic this way, but the music really brings the film to life. Zellweger is a huge part of it, as her vocals (she did this all herself, as opposed to lip synching with some fake teeth) are almost pitch perfect for Garland’s late-period career. It’s uncanny how much she sounds like Garland at times, aided by Goold’s thoughtful staging of these sequences. Goold started as a theater director, which makes these scenes of Garland performing on stage really pop compared to other films in the genre. His cinematic touches are equally deserving of praise, particularly the composition of his shots and his use of editing. The first number is captured entirely in a single take, and the “Trolley Song” is cleverly used as a montage of Garland’s destructive behaviors. The film truly captures Judy Garland’s spirit when the film stops the show to let Zellweger belt out the tunes.
Sadly, the pronounced, clichéd flaws that permeate the biopic—and specifically the biopics focused on musicians —are all present. Even though it’s about a specific period in Garland’s life, Judy can’t help but feel like it’s going through the same motions. Even worse, there are flashback sequences about Garland’s early career before and during the filming of Wizard of Oz that add nothing to the narrative. They merely introduce ham-fisted studio head villains and a metaphor for the early fading of innocence. There’s nothing in these flashbacks that isn’t inferred in the main narrative. It’s all filler and making explicit things that the audience already knows. There’s a clever idea of telling Garland’s story via these two periods of her life, but Judy merely does so to conform to biopic tropes rather than do any real exploration of the character.
Zellweger’s performance does its best to elevate Judy, but the requisite banality of the genre drags the film down as a whole. At the end of the day, we’ve learned and experienced nothing about the real Judy Garland that we couldn’t have taken in by reading from her Wikipedia page while listening to one of her albums. At one time, Judy Garland was the greatest entertainer in the world, and while Zellweger captures her vaudevillian energy and commanding stage presence, as well as a damn fine recreation of her iconic voice, the film itself is too formulaic to denote what an unparalleled talent she was. Judy is a perfectly competent, tolerable film, but the story of a legend like Judy Garland deserves something more.
- I would mention the other performances, but there’s not really much there. Rufus Sewell is here as her ex to be antagonistic, Finn Whitrock is here being the handsome new beau who eventually turns out to be just as big a jerk as her previous husband, and Jessie Buckley is woefully underused as Garland’s assistant in London who merely exists to give Zellweger sympathetic glances every five minutes to show someone cares.