Judy begins on the set of The Wizard of Oz (1939). A young, scared Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) is overwhelmed by the production and wants to quit. MGM studio exec/bully Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) pulls her aside, and promises her a life of fortune and grandeur, all the while besmirching the alternative of quiet domesticity.
Eighty years later, we of course know what Garland chose, and have enjoyed her songs and performances ever since, with The Wizard of Oz still feeling as fresh as ever and part of the cultural idiom.
But that doesn’t mean it was the best decision for Garland.
Based on actual events and dramatically uneven, most of director Rupert Goold’s film takes place in the winter of 1968, during which Garland (Renée Zellweger) travels to London for a series of concerts at The Talk of the Town. Flashbacks to her younger days at MGM provide the seeds of unhappiness that fester during this trip to London: Rejection from men, including frequent co-star Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry); not being allowed to eat because she has to stay thin; being forced to take pills to wake up, then to sleep, in a vicious cycle; being forced to perform on demand, per the studio’s schedule; and more.
By 1968, she’s a mess. She somewhat impulsively marries aspiring businessman Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), frequently pops pills and drinks, is in desperate need of money, and is virtually unhireable because no one trusts her to show up to perform. She has three things going for her: 1) her fame, which warrants respect and the kindness of others; 2) her loving children, Joey (Lewin Lloyd) and Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), and Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux); 3) and the concerts in London, where she is selling out shows and has not yet burned bridges – there, she is still beloved by audiences and promoters.
Goold’s movie isn’t kind to Garland, but it is compassionate, and paints her as a victim of her success. But it also doesn’t elicit much empathy, as she doesn’t take active steps to help herself either.
Still, in real life Garland brought us immense joy and delivered breakout talent, so we naturally want the onscreen version of her to find happiness, futile as our hopes may be.
(In 2018, Minnelli publicly stated she did not approve of nor sanction this film in any way, and that she never met Zellweger. For what it’s worth, Minnelli is depicted reasonably well in the film.)
Zellweger isn’t exactly a spitting image of Garland, but if you watch Garland’s old performance clips you’ll quickly realize how superbly Zellweger captures the icon’s mannerisms.
Zellweger also did her own singing – live on set, by Goold’s insistence – and in doing so delivers truly impassioned renditions of Garland’s best known songs at every turn. “By Myself,” “The Trolley Song” (from Meet Me In St. Louis) and “For Once In My Life.” More are heard, and “Get Happy” (from Summer Stock) is used during a montage.
“Over The Rainbow” is saved, naturally, for the finale. The song is about hope, dreams for the future, and happiness that is bound to come. When Garland first performed it in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, the singing is big, boastful and optimistic. We sense that she, through Dorothy, believed her dreams really would come true.
When Zellweger sings it in Judy, the song feels broken, stagnant, scattered. It’s the crackly voice of a woman whose dreams haven’t come true, and the crushing reality of that is beautifully, symbolically rendered through the singing.
There is an element of uplift that makes the ending of the film successful that should not be spoiled here, but it’s telling, and sad, that one of America’s most beloved performers was apparently so intensely unhappy.
JUDY ( 2 ½ ) Directed by Rupert Goold • Starring Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock • Rated PG-13 • 118 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte