Judy was directed by Rupert Goold from a script by The Crown writer Tom Edge, and is based upon the stage play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. It stars Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland, but not the young Judy Garland most audiences might be familiar with. Picking up during the later parts of her life after an opening scene features her as a young girl (played by Darci Shaw) auditioning for The Wizard of Oz at MGM, the Judy as this film knows her is now a mother of three in her mid-40’s, past her prime working days according to all but a select view in the cogs of the Hollywood machine, and is struggling to make ends meet enough to take care of her two youngest children; they move around a lot, lose out on their hotel reservations, and can’t seem to find any place to stay, as Judy’s accounts have now begun to run dry. To make matters worse, her ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) is attempting to win custody of their children, the one thing Judy lives for and loves more than anything else. But when an opportunity arises for some cash inflow to pay for housing so she can keep her children with her, Judy decides to embark on a tour across London in the winter of 1968, performing a series of sold-out concerts in order to get back to her children, and maybe find some of that old spark along the way. The film also stars Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder (tour manager) and Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans (Judy’s fifth husband).
I was apprehensive about a Judy Garland biopic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that Judy didn’t live a very happy life for most of her Hollywood career, so any biopic that only attempted to capture the majority of her career was bound to be kind of a downer; on the other side of that, however, were some really wonderful moments that came few and far between, so anything focusing primarily on those would have an air of feeling disingenuous or sanitized. When the trailer for Judy was released, though, I felt a bit of relief in that it seemed as if the film would tackle the struggles and triumphs of her life in a nuanced fashion that neither glamorized how she was treated nor sanitized her history of addiction and family problems, which often halted studios’ desire to keep her around even as they recognized what a rare talent she truly was. Yet, for all the good the trailer did at selling the idea of Zellweger’s performance, it did less to sell the idea of the movie on the whole, and after watching it from start to finish, it’s not hard to see why Judy, much like its central legendary character, seemed destined for greatness, only to have a myriad of other problems get in the way of its pursuits.
It’s not so much that Judy is bad. In fact, on the whole, it’s pretty good, held up largely by its central performance and a beautiful third act that truly feels reverent of her status even as it understands the very human mistakes and influences behind her eventual lack of it. This is easily the strongest part of the film, and one does genuinely see how greatly the communities in London loved Garland as a performer, how much she meant to so many people. The chorus of voices that sing along with her music are as moving as anything Zellweger belts out during the course of the movie, and there at the end of it all, I felt genuinely moved, wishing we could have seen more of what the last act was during the first two. The trouble is that the highs and lows of the picture are never as high or as low as they need to be in order to give the movie itself the sort of boost it would need to become a legitimately great film.
Much like the MGM studio machine that kept Judy running on pills and photoshoots, this movie feels as if it only wants to use Judy Garland as a prop to get people (specifically, awards voters) into theater seats for Oscar consideration regarding its star, paying no mind to the story around her and how it portrays her as a person. Renée Zellweger is almost as note-perfect as she could be playing the beloved Hollywood icon, but beyond her performance and that of would-be scene-stealer Jessie Buckley, the film can’t seem to figure out what to do with her character aside from reflect on how Hollywood mistreated her in her youth and how that mistreatment affected her later life. On paper, Judy sounds like a sure thing, but in execution, the film mainly operates as a performance vehicle for Zellweger without ever developing the character of Garland beyond “hey, you remember her? She was in Wizard of Oz and did some other songs! Also did pills and booze, though.” This film does nothing to educate those not already familiar with the history of Judy Garland as a performer and as a person, and the whole thing ends up feeling like a decent biopic that missed a huge opportunity for some genuine thematic heft.
Don’t get me wrong, Judy has themes, largely concerned with how the Hollywood studio system chews up and spits out its women so thoroughly that they can ultimately tarnish the legacy of some of their most beloved stars by inciting development problems and addictions just to stay on schedule, but the story itself seems only interested in how Garland’s issues with addiction affect those around her, rather than how they affect her directly. The issue of her children comes up from time to time, but since the kids are hardly in the movie because they were staying at her ex-husband’s house, there doesn’t seem to be much driving Judy to continue caring about why she’s on tour in the first place; there’s nothing here about re-habilitation or the drive to be a performer. In fact, for most of the film, the last thing Judy wants is to perform, but she ends up getting her wish anyway, because we hardly ever see those performances take place for any longer than one song, and even then, it only happens twice. It can be hard to get on board with a central character who resists something that’s barely there in the first place. Judy wants us to miss our leading lady, but it rarely ever dives into what made her a star and why people fell in love with her in the first place, so (apart from our foreknowledge of her life) we never understand why people in this movie fall for her.
It’s also just not very interesting to look at. The lighting is flat, the color feels sapped from the frame, the editing feels unfinished in a few parts, and the framing itself doesn’t yield much of a story. If one were to look at a single frame of this film on its own, one would be hard pressed to find one that encapsulates any sort of message or interesting image beyond “hey, Judy wore that costume/outfit sometimes.” Maybe I’m simply being cynical because I expected the film to be better than what it was so clearly aiming for, but I don’t think it’s an unfair expectation when you’re dealing with one of the most iconic actresses of all time, attempting to do her justice, and only using her story as a melancholic acknowledgement of past mistakes and a sad life that resulted from them, rather than any sort of apology, course correction, or self-betterment exercise.
In the end, Judy might be a decent biopic depicting the struggles of a beloved icon, but it pales in comparison to the movies that icon actually appeared in, and says next to nothing about her or legacy beyond “don’t forget about Judy.” Even writing this review was more difficult than most others, because I wasn’t sure if I had anything to say about it beyond that Zellweger will probably get nominated if she plays her cards right, but that’s about the only nomination the film will likely get. It may sound like I’m being overly negative in this review, and I don’t mean to be (like I said, I liked the movie), but aside from the filmmaking simply not being very interestingly framed or put together, the film’s biggest issue (surprisingly enough) is the development of its central protagonist, and when your protagonist is a legend like Judy Garland, a film this plain won’t get you anywhere near the rainbow, let alone over it.
I’m giving “Judy” a 7.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.