There’s no business like show business!
Ain’t that the truth!
The movie business is unlike any other. It exists in a world of its own making, one that exists outside the laws which govern you and me. The pressures put upon its stars, especially those of yesteryear, often crushed their hopes, dreams, and ultimately their lives.
Such is the story told in JUDY (2019), the new bio pic of Judy Garland, the child star who played Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) whose troubled life remained so until she died of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969 at the age of 47.
JUDY features a phenomenal performance by Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland that is as emotional as it is riveting. It’s also the main reason to see this one.
While JUDY opens on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ with a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) being lectured by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the film does not take on the entirety of Judy Garland’s life but rather the entertainer’s final few months, when in desperate need of money, she went on tour in London which would turn out to be her final performances.
But it opens with a young Judy being given a “choice” by Mayer. If she’s unhappy, she can walk away from show business, Mayer says, or because of her voice, she can become something that will set her apart from all the other girls in the nation. He also is quick to remind her of her roots and her real name Frances Ethel Gumm, the implication being that she is nothing without him. The film returns to these creepy moments with Garland and Mayer in flashbacks throughout the story, serving as a reminder of just how controlling Mayer and the studio was of Garland and how much damage they actually did to her, often preventing her from eating to avoid weight gain and instead feeding her with pills.
But the bulk of the film takes place in late 1968, when Garland was on tour in London. Garland is struggling to make ends meet as she is trying to provide for her two younger children, while their father Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) is fighting for custody since he believes he can provide them with a steady home.
Garland is advised to accept a gig in London where she will be paid much more than she is currently being paid in the U.S. She has no choice but to accept. She also has to leave her children behind with their dad, a decision that pains her greatly.
The film chronicles what happens during these performances, as Garland endeavors to overcome stage fright, insomnia, and drug dependency, all the while driven to perform even when she has nothing left.
Renee Zellweger knocks it out of the park as Judy Garland. She loses herself in the role, and for the entirety of this movie, I felt as if I were watching the real Garland on-screen. Her performance is every bit as good as Taron Egerton’s turn as Elton John in ROCKETMAN (2019) earlier this year. I would imagine both of these actors will be noticed come Oscar time.
As a whole, JUDY isn’t as creative or captivating as ROCKETMAN, as its script simply isn’t as innovative nor does it cover the full scope of Garland’s life as ROCKETMAN did for Elton John. As such, JUDY reminded me more of another show biz movie, STAN & OLLIE (2018), which recounted the final tour of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, which was also in Great Britain by the way. Both films show entertainers battling through their swan songs.
JUDY is actually a bit better than STAN & OLLIE because of Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland. There are some moments in JUDY where Zellweger brings the house down. Her climactic rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is certainly one of them. She captures Judy Garland’s ability to reach into people’s hearts and move them to tears. In terms of cinema, it’s up there with Egerton’s moment in ROCKETMAN where Elton John performs at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles.
She also has a great line when she’s being interviewed on British television and she takes offense to some of the personal questions. She says “I’m only Judy Garland for 90 minutes a night. The rest of the time I’m a real person, a mother who’s trying to raise her children like any other mother.”
I’m not sure if I’m prepared to say that this is Rene Zellweger’s best performance, but it’s in the conversation. She’s sensational here. Again, I felt as if I were watching the real Judy Garland.
The rest of the cast is also commendable. I liked Jessie Buckley who plays Rosalyn Wilder, Judy’s contact and handler in London. Rosalyn has no idea that Garland is in the shape she is in, in terms of not wanting to perform, and Buckley does a nice job showing Wilder dealing with the star with unceasing patience.
Finn Wittrock is convincing as Mickey Deans, the energetic and young entrepreneur who becomes Garland’s fifth husband. Likewise, Rufus Sewell is solid as Garland’s previous husband Sidney Luft.
And I enjoyed Darci Shaw in her brief scenes as a young Judy Garland.
The screenplay by Tom Edge based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter is better than critics are giving it credit for. It makes its point that Garland was manipulated by the industry at a young age, a manipulation that took its toll on her, and shows during her final months the pains she was dealing with, all the while remaining driven to perform, as if performing were more of an addiction for her than the pills she was taking.
It also provides the film with some wonderful moments. My favorite, when a pair of fans, a gay couple who idolize Garland, remain outside the theater to see her, is one of the best sequences in the film. When she meets them she asks if they’d like to join her for dinner. Their reaction, a moment of being star struck is a genuine one, but yet it doesn’t stop there. They are unable to find an eatery open at that time of night, much to their chagrin, and so they invite her back to their apartment so they can cook her dinner. It’s a poignant, entertaining sequence. These scenes also provide some social commentary on the treatment of gays both then and now.
Director Rupert Goold keeps this one straightforward and grounded in reality. It’s not the off the charts spectacle of ROCKETMAN, but it works nonetheless. The musical numbers are all effective, and Zellweger captures Garland’s movements and mannerisms to perfection.
Again, one of the best moments in the film is Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and her words before singing the song, where she talks about everyone’s journey towards wherever it is they want to go, and that in this life, regardless of the result, it’s the journey itself that is most valued.
JUDY is getting mixed reviews, and other than Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland, critics don’t have a lot of kind things to say about the film. But the movie as a whole worked for me, and there’s a lot to learn here from Judy Garland’s story as depicted in this movie.
I’d like to think that Judy Garland did not die in vain, that somewhere over the rainbow “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
Which after all is the point of JUDY, that in spite of how one’s journey ends, and all of our journeys will end the same way, the work towards making one’s dreams come true is what matters and is worth every ounce of pain one endures to get there.