The life and career of Judy Garland has been widely documented, and it is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most tragic stories. Garland was swallowed up by the old Hollywood studio system, with studio heads taking advantage of her natural talents with little to no regard for her well-being, resulting in a life of depression, drug abuse and suicide attempts, ultimately resulting in her untimely death at the age of 47 due to a drug overdose.
Judy stars Renee Zellweger as Garland and chronicles a brief moment of time toward the end of Garland’s life in which she is broke and without a permanent residence. To gain full-time custody of her children, she must prove that she can still earn a living, so she travels to London for a five-week run of concerts at the Talk of the Town theater, while at the same time coping with depression, alcoholism and substance abuse. Throughout the film, we are taken back to various moments early in Garland’s career, which provides context for her current state. The flashbacks are also used to demonstrate how destructive her relationship was with the studio, particularly MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).
While I enjoyed Judy, I regret to say that I wished I had enjoyed it more. I feel there was a lot of unreached potential here. Moments of the film felt a bit contrived, and I don’t feel that the script was quite as nuanced as it should have been. Zellweger’s efforts should be noted, as she puts everything into her performance as Garland, but all too often I felt that she was performing Judy Garland rather than embodying Judy Garland. There were moments that I truly felt she was channeling Judy but those were offset by glimpses of Zellweger’s familiar acting style shining through. This may sound nit-picky, but complete immersion and believability are important in a film of this nature.
Zellweger does her own singing (which she proved she was capable of in Chicago), coming close at times to sounding like Garland, which was made easier given the timeframe in which this takes place. Years of smoking and drinking had diminished Garland’s voice a bit by this time, but she could still belt it out, as can Zellweger. Taron Egerton convincingly did his own singing for the Elton John biopic Rocketman, and I think Zellweger does too.
The film was loosely based on Peter Quilter’s award-winning musical/drama play End of the Rainbow, and while changes made to the structure and story has prompted Quilter to call this film a “companion piece” rather than a proper adaptation, it still feels like a play at times. Having not seen the stage production, I would not be surprised if I were to learn that large chunks of dialogue came directly from the play. An early speech given to a young Garland by Mayer, for instance, is more monologue than dialogue.
There were a few relationships that are touched upon in the film that I would have liked to see explored a bit more, particularly Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), the put-upon Talk of the Town production assistant responsible for Garland while she was in London (the real Rosalyn Wilder acted as a consultant on the film). The dynamic between the two was very interesting and could have easily been the focus of its own film. Additionally, Garland’s friendship and staged romance with frequent co-star Mickey Rooney are addressed in the flashbacks, and it too could be a film unto itself.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, I found myself questioning what aspects of the film were factual and what was fabricated. And like Bohemian Rhapsody, after a bit of research, I found that some of my suspicions were confirmed, with some of events and characters being altered or created for the film. I am aware that this is not a documentary, but the continuous doubt took me out of the film a bit.
Last year’s Stan and Ollie had a very similar storyline to Judy on the surface level (aging Hollywood stars that are past their prime perform in England in an attempt to revive their career), but that film was significantly better. Beyond the basic premise, the two films are wildly different, but while Judy’s subject matter has a bit more gravitas, I felt Stan and Ollie was a bit more earnest in its approach.
Judy is not a bad movie by any means, but I feel that it just misses the mark of being a really good movie. This brief moment in Garland’s life is often glossed over, as it was so closely preceded by her death, so it was nice to see it explored a bit. That said, I feel there just was not enough here to sustain a whole movie. More interesting aspects of her life were touched upon, and I found myself wanting to know more about them after watching the film.