For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with Judy Garland. From The Wizard Of Oz to Meet Me In St. Louis to A Star Is Born, it’s fair to say that her contribution to cinema is something that shaped my own love for film from a very early age. For someone who brought so much joy to the big screen, the great irony of Judy Garland’s existence is that beyond the cameras, there was very rarely much joy to be found. Her story has been told in various on screen forms before, and no matter how many times I have seen it played out, I always end up coming back for more.
Based on the award winning Peter Quilter play End Of The Rainbow, Judy focuses on a period near the end of Judy Garland’s (Renée Zellweger) life, a stint of London concerts that she reluctantly signed on to in an attempt to ease her ever increasing financial troubles. Over the course of two hours viewers are treated to both the best and the worst of the iconic star, dazzling, enigmatic musical performances interspersed with messy, car crash appearances that showcase the battle with prescription drugs that had been a part of Garland’s life ever since childhood.
In many ways, Judy follows in the tradition of most of these big name biopics in the sense that it is a fairly average film that is exponentially boosted by a stellar central performance. As someone who knows the intricacies of this particular history inside out, the narrative does feel somewhat light and ‘Wikipedia page’ style, but there is no denying that the picture feels magic when the music is front and centre. The origins and turning points of Garland’s early career are punctuated with a handful of bittersweet flashback sequences that feel a little bit too ‘TV movie’ for my taste, but for the most part the melancholy drama of the present finds a rhythm that really works in a slow, seductive kind of way.
In focusing on just a short period of time rather than trying to cover an entire life and career, the film is able to slow down and really allow the narrative to marinate, even if much of the actual content does feel a little ‘beginner’s guide’. More traditional sweeping biopics are constantly battling with running time and fitting everything in, so in that sense Judy does have the luxury of telling a singular chapter in a novel filled with too much drama for one film. Because of this, however, it does feel like a general knowledge of the tragic life the protagonist has lead might be necessary for the full emotional effect of the narrative to be felt.
Ultimately, Judy is a solid if not sensational adaptation of Peter Quilter’s play (which, coincidentally, I was lucky enough to see in London some years ago). The picture very much plays to its key strength, and you won’t find anyone in the world who doesn’t agree that that key strength is the performance of Renée Zellweger.
Zellweger is completely captivating and transformative as Garland, I don’t think she puts a single foot wrong from start to finish. The excellence of the performance is in the way that instead of trying to do a like for like impersonation, Zellweger instead has adopted certain traits and physical attributes that result in an embodiment rather than a cosplay. From the fragile posture to a version of the iconic voice, both talking and singing, Zellweger opts for an essence of Garland over an imitation, and the choice is a remarkable success.
Being such distinctive presence herself, I was worried that Zellweger wouldn’t be able to hide herself within the character, but I’m happy to report that I didn’t think about the actress for a single second. The only person I saw was Judy Garland. Anyone who loves Chicago as much as I do know that Zellweger can do more than just carry a tune, and her handful of musical performances within the film are exceptional. The performance is bound to garner awards attention as we roll into the new year, and we know that the various academies have soft spots for biopic portrayals like this. I hesitate to call anything a certainty so soon in the game, but for my money Renée is going to take some beating.
Whilst the film is certainly a classic example of one woman show, there are a number of supporting performances that help to facilitate the excellency of Zellweger’s turn. Jessie Buckley continues to make a cinematic name for herself as Rosalyn Wilder, the assistant tasked with making sure Judy sticks to her schedule and commitments. Darci Shaw as young Judy doesn’t quite capture the essence of the Wizard Of Aged starlet, but the flashback scenes really do do act a contextual footnotes for the ‘meat’ of the 1960s set story.
Two small but crucial roles in the film are performed by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira. As Dan and Stan, a gay couple who attend Judy’s show several times and eventually befriend her, Nyman and Cerqueira are a small but important addition to the story, a symbol of a extraordinary standing that Garland had and still has within the LGBTQ+ community. The scenes between the three performers are some of the most fun and equally most poignant in the entire movie. Their involvement towards the end of the film could be accused of being over-sentimental, but given the melancholy of the bulk of the film, I can’t be too much of a hater.
Overall, the natural critic in me knows that Judy is a fairly solid but safe biopic that has more than a whiff of Oscar bait about it. The fan in me, however, luxuriated in the time spent with Renée Zellweger in this part, in a film pretty much built and designed to show her off. Judy Garland means a lot to me not only as a performer but as symbol of something more, and for those reasons alone Judy felt more special than perhaps it might to someone else.