This biopic about Judy Garland’s final 1968 concert run in London has very little to it outside of masterful performance from Renée Zellweger, but what a performance.
To be honest, going into the movie I didn’t know a whole lot about Judy Garland and I’ve never even seen The Wizard of Oz in full. However if you know anything about Hollywood, you probably know Judy Garland as a haunting example of a talent consumed by the pressures of fame, and a child star mercilessly chewed up by the system. There are flashbacks throughout the movie that, while a tad heavy-handed, do give a sense of damage done to young Judy, the creepy amount of control the studio exerted over her, and an early addiction to spotlight as powerful as her addiction to pills.
Generally speaking there are two different roads a biopic can take: try to cram in a person’s entire life story into a couple of hours, or zoom in on a specific period in their lives. Judy I thought was all the better for sticking with the latter approach; instead of rushing through Garland’s tumultuous life (and five husbands), it could concentrate on a portrait of later-day Judy Garland (and just one last husband who shockingly turns out to be a phony).
Other than the flashbacks, the bulk of the movie deals with the last few months of Garland’s life, with the desperate and broke star embarking on a series of live concerts in London, hoping to turn her fortunes around. She’s forced to leave behind her two younger children, an agonising decision that doesn’t help her already frayed state. Battling self-doubt, loneliness and drug addiction, on some nights Garland delivers the kind of megawatt performance her audience has paid to see. On others, it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.
When watching something like Judy, I do wish for a biopic that was a great movie on its own, rather than just a competently directed canvas for great acting. But there’s no denying that, while the film is thoroughly conventional, the sheer vibrancy of Renée Zellweger’s performance propels it well beyond your average TV movie of the week. She doesn’t quite disappear into the role – Zellweger’s smile in particular is so distinctive that you always know you’re watching Renée Zellweger smile. For long stretches of time though, she managed to make me forget about the real-life actress and just see Judy Garland, especially during the captivating showstopper scenes of Garland performing onstage. Though musically speaking they’re not really my cuppa, by the end of it all it’s hard not to be moved by both the tragic effects of fame and limelight on this woman’s life and the genuine connection she had with the audience. Her performance is also as funny as it’s emotionally raw, with Garland dropping sharp and witty wisecracks even as her life is spinning out of control.
P.S. Though the film’s secondary characters feel very much secondary, I was glad to spot Jessie Buckley, who had impressed me in BBC’s TV adaptation of War & Peace, as the very British and clipped production assistant tasked with looking after Garland. I hope she goes places.