Directed by Rupert Goold.
Starring Renée Zellweger, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey, John Dagleish, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Tim Ahern, Bentley Kalu, Arthur McBain, Phil Dunster, David Shields, John Mackay, and Darci Shaw.
Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.
Renée Zellweger deserves whatever accolades are coming her way and the fervent praise she has already received for portraying the tragic late years of the eponymous Judy Garland, one of Hollywood’s most wronged and irreplaceable talents. She captures the anxiety, insomnia, substance abuse, eating disorder, her suffering, and soul-piercingly beautiful vocals with a performance that is out to do everything at once and is largely effective. It will be a shock if Renée Zellweger does not receive an Oscar nomination for Judy; it is simply a powerful performance that falls in line with the Academy’s taste.
There is also a more intriguing, refreshing, albeit admittedly far more depressing and horrifying story in the background of Judy. Before showing audiences the downward spiral Judy Garland is navigating, director Rupert Goold opens the proceedings with an uncomfortable, manipulative, and somewhat predatory exchange between MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer and a teenage Judy (Darci Shaw). He delivers a monologue regarding Judy being destined for greatness rather than being a traditional housewife, not because of her beauty (he’s quick to hurtfully point out that someone will always be prettier) but the one thing no one will ever be able to replicate; her singing voice. Following her professing obedience to him, she is granted the coveted role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz with the promises of a seemingly perfect and privileged future. Even if the delivery of it all is a bit too on-the-nose with how scummy and advantageous Hollywood can be and usually is, the occasional flashback segments depicting the downright abusive behavior towards Judy Garland during the making of that picture would make for a more interesting and timely project.
That’s not to say what’s here is bad by any means; it’s actually akin to being swept up in a tornado as Judy faces setbacks, finds happiness, relapses into self-destructive tendencies, makes poor decisions, and ultimately, continues to behave like a product of the Hollywood machine that chewed her up and spat her out. There’s never a dull moment and Renée Zellweger goes beyond just giving a transformative performance; she’s vulnerable, fiercely independent yet addicted to love, angry, hopeful, and belts out songs on stage with animated movements and passionate gestures as if it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with everything on her plate and releasing gargantuan levels of stress.
In terms of structure, Judy is a biopic that’s less episodic and more rollercoaster of events occurring simultaneously, even if it means certain aspects feel rushed (her fifth marriage) or out of place (a sweet encounter with a gay couple that reassures for as burnt out and jaded as she is about performing for the audience, she still loves her loyal fans). Tom Edge’s script (based on Peter Quilter’s stageplay End of the Rainbow) also has enough sense to not even attempt chronicling the entire life of Judy Garland within two hours, opting to focus on a short window of her final months and the cruel experience as a teenager starring in The Wizard of Oz. As a whole, the familiar storytelling elements are tackled with chaotic energy both in craftsmanship and from Renée Zellweger.
Still, every time Rupert Goold took us back to that harrowing shoot, which involved an early birthday celebration where Judy was restricted from taking one bite of cake let alone having a slice, Judy had something to say about both body-shaming and the outrageously unrealistic standards celebrities were held to when it came to objectively qualifying someone as gorgeous. Unfortunately, it still goes on today, and we do need more defiant actors such as Jennifer Lawrence, who went on record saying she will eat whatever she wants whether she loses a role or not, after being told she was gaining weight. Wisely, this is one aspect Renée Zellweger takes from the brief childhood chapters and leans into the most, as Judy struggles with her appetite and generally fails to properly take care of herself. There’s a scene where she takes a bite of some cake as an adult that is vicariously cathartic, also serving as a means of taking back a small portion of a stolen life.
It’s also worth pointing out that Judy carries a PG-13 rating, which somewhat prevents it from fully delving into darker material. It’s sanitized, and even if the song selections for the stage performance interludes contain lyrics that expand on Judy’s mindset, they do feel unnecessary and exist for show with the exception of Renée Zellweger’s closing rendition of Over the Rainbow (she kills it, as she does with all of the musical numbers even if there is some autotune assistance). It comes across as giving mainstream audiences what they want instead of sticking with intimately analyzing a life of pain.
The rest of the supporting cast does hold their own, featuring Jessie Buckley (a multi-talented actor/singer in her own right and star of Wild Rose, which readers should make a priority to seek out) and Finn Wittrock as a love interest using his business knowledge to put a contract in place for Judy to receive royalty income. However, Judy is absolutely Renée Zellweger’s film, even if I do wonder what could have been if it was Darci Shaw’s. Either way the cake is sliced, it’s a portrait of tragedy, and those not familiar with Judy Garland’s personal life are basically going to see a nonfictional version of A Star is Born, which she coincidentally once starred in. Life really does imitate art, and Judy Garland shined bright until the end.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com