Directed By Rupert Goold
Starring – Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock
The Plot – Winter 1968 and showbiz legend Judy Garland (Zellweger) arrives in Swinging London to perform a five-week sold-out run at The Talk of the Town. It is 30 years since she shot to global stardom in “The Wizard of Oz”, but if her voice has weakened, its dramatic intensity has only grown. As she prepares for the show, battles with management, charms musicians and reminisces with friends and adoring fans, her wit and warmth shine through. Even her dreams of love seem undimmed as she embarks on a whirlwind romance with Mickey Deans (Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband. Featuring some of her best-known songs, the film celebrates the voice, the capacity for love, and the sheer pizzazz of “the world’s greatest entertainer.”
Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong adult language, and smoking
– Informative. “Judy” has an unabashed approach when it comes to conveying the audience the kind of pressures behind the scenes that Garland dealt with as a result of her rising stardom. Sure, there’s the expected aspects, like the mental duress caused from a constricted and commanded life, but what’s truly compelling here is the series of bad decisions, some Judy’s fault and some not, that carved out this woman who we see front and center as our jaded protagonist of the movie, giving us a recipe for disaster for child stars that is every bit as bad as anything I’ve ever heard. I myself knew very little about Garland before the movie, and the film did more than enough to satisfy my curiosity, choosing to astound its audience with the entire truth regardless of who it hurts in the process, and I commend a film with so little barriers creatively.
– Bravery. Keeping up with the previous positive, the film also is certainly no puff piece for Garland, in that it tries to shape her as someone she definitely wasn’t. From my time spent with the character, I learned that she was a terrible parent, selfish when it came to putting her needs over the demands of her audience, in love with the idea of being in love, and the owner of some of the worst decisions that I’ve ever seen when it comes to managing her dimming star. A lesser biopic will stick to what’s safe when selling its product to the specific audience who are coming to see it, but Goold never relents on conveying his message of provocation for the scandals, giving us many directions of abuse aimed towards the titular character, and some of which even being self-inflicted. It’s a movie that doesn’t cater to anyone in selling a specific agenda, and is as close to authentic as any biopic that I’ve ever seen about this memorable face.
– Valued production. This is two-fold, as the idea of this being a period piece, complete with such foreign styles and designs from what we’re used to in modern day, as well as the film’s encompassed cinematography, which eludes it from ever feeling like a made-for-TV movie. England is the perfect place to cast a majority of this story from, as much of the architecture and plush styles have changed so little ever since post-World War generation, and the production takes advantage of such a permanence, visually seducing us with a combination of colorful gowns, big band musical sequences, and a state of mind with subject matters that we have since evolved firmly from. Likewise, the filmmaking here is astutely sound, treating us to lurid movements in shot composition, sharp editing, and pacing that mostly held its own for me. This is a film that doesn’t fall completely in love with the pageantry of depicting a past age of pop culture, choosing instead to focus more intently on the character piece in front of us. What visual flares it does possess will be enough to stimulate you into immersing your mind over to the designated time-frame, serving as eye-popping garnish for the meaty main course.
– Riveting Renee. I knew that Renee Zellweger could act before this movie, but she’s never convinced me as a transformative actress. That all changes in this performance as Judy Garland, as Zellweger’s familiar mannerisms for the actress-turned-singer proved that the she did her homework on the cinematic icon, and it’s in that dedication where we get Renee’s single best performance to date. Renee trades in her familiar squeaky voice and frequent squinting in favor of a wide-eyed diva who exuberates the spontaneity of the singer, who could have a good or bad night depending on what has recently transpired in her life. Zellweger earns empathy like very few female performances have this year, and takes her performance down a resounding road of redemption that proves that Hollywood endings really are just reserved for film, and real life is so much more brunt and unforgiving. While Renee isn’t a shoe-in for the Oscar, her work here should be enough to warrant a nomination at the very least.
– The soundtrack. From the flawless choice in song selection, to the jaw-dropping surprise that Zellweger actually sings in this movie, everything musically nourished the soul and brought forth the kind of respect and dedication that Judy herself would commend if she were here to do it. Renee spent a year training with “La La Land” vocal coach Eric Vetro, and the duo’s work remarkably shines, as her believability in a weathered Garland makes the feat attainable in evening the odds between character and actress. That sounds like a back-handed compliment, but it’s efficient for the aged Judy that the movie is depicting, making Zellweger have to scale it back a bit to attain that level of weathered vocal capacity. Among my favorite song choices for the film, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is obviously in there, but I also enjoyed Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy”, Ron Miller’s infectious swing “For Once In My Life”, and especially my personal favorite, “Come Rain or Come Shine” also by Arlen.
– Contemporaneously relevant. Without question, the single biggest impact that can be felt from this film is the status that Garland attained as an iconic figure in the gay community. This is unfortunately only relegated to a single scene in the movie, but it’s one that rings effectively in triggering the contrast between then and now for the same, ridiculous wars that unaffected people feel compelled to fight. This comes out in the form of a gay male couple in the film, who are huge Judy fans, and felt inspired by her music to live the kind of lifestyle that they feel entitled to. The film does this without having their disposition take over the focus of the movie, but this five minute scene is enough to remind us that as much as things change, unfortunately some things remain the same, as gay rights is still a fight being pursued by many brave souls in today’s insensitive landscape. It’s a sad yet comfortably-inspiring scene that is easily my favorite of the film, and casts a level of importance for Judy that couldn’t be attained in a thousand people complimenting her.
– Unconventional direction. Perhaps the strongest decision creatively for the film comes in the form of shaping the story within this single year in Judy’s life, instead of the long-winded life stories that biopics have become accustomed to. What’s compelling about this is it focuses on the star after the lights of fame have died down, and really gives us an honest depiction of what is left being the most important thing; family. In this case, I feel like it’s much more rewarding to take an instance in a person’s life, and exploit what got us to this particular moment by then utilizing the demons of the past to play simultaneously with the transpiring of the current day narrative. It wastes little time in its initial set-up, and plants its feet in the area where the details about Judy’s life are the least known, and I appreciated it every step of the way because of it.
– Unnecessary dual narrative. I will be in the minority for this critique, but I feel like the decision to include a series of flashbacks to Judy’s childhood are ones that only lay the thickness of obviousness in its exposition, and don’t really tell us anything that we weren’t already learning from the free-flowing dialogue, that informed us naturally with each passing conversation. For one, long periods of time commence between these flashbacks, presenting them with such little time importance to the tug-of-war with the present day narrative. Secondly, the acting in them was a bit over-the-top for my taste, and it all felt like a distracting dramatization that you see in a crime show depicting a real life event. For my money, I would rather learn about Judy’s past from the scars of war that she wears on her face from an endless battle with sleep, a devastating battle of custody for her kids, and a crumbling stability, which paints the past better than these pacing speed-bumps ever could.
– Time devotion. This screenplay tries to attain a bit too many dynamics with not enough time given to them to further flesh out their importance to the plot. A perfect example of this is through the eyes of Jessie Buckley, the second highest billing cast member of this film. She’s alluded to being important, yet the movie has these nothing scenes with her and Judy, where her character comes across as being overbearing. Likewise, the romantic subplot between Judy and Mickey evolves as naturally as a half hour sitcom, at some times going as much as forty minutes without touching base on this subplot, and others where it dominates the screen for twenty minutes until it is resolved with its inevitable direction. I definitely could’ve used more time dedicated to these relationships and many others that don’t seem valued enough to depict in the film, and feel like they’re being rushed for an ample run time of nearly two hours to promote them all.
– Ending flub. Another opinion that I will be in the minority for is the decisions with the final scenes that removed so much air of momentum from the direction of the finished product. There’s a particular moment after an energetic song which would be a perfect final image to leave audiences inspired. Instead, the film goes on for five more minutes just so it can include a disappointing on-screen performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, leaving the film on a pitiful note instead of the inspiring one that Judy deserved. Not a big deal when compared to my other two negatives, but it didn’t give me as strong of a feeling as I had two scenes earlier, when Judy’s triumph was the necessary inflation before hitting the on-screen text that conveyed the rest of her tragic life.
My Grade: 7/10 or C+