Musical biopics have become something of the rage lately, first with Bohemian Rhapsody followed very closely by Rocketman. Now we have Renée Zellweger stepping into the ruby slippers of one of the most iconic performers ever. Now we have yet another movie about Judy Garland.
The problem with doing another movie about Judy Garland is that this is a story that has been told and retold, even as recently as the 2001 TV mini-series Life with Judy Garland: Me and my Shadows, and in each one we are reminded of the tragic life young Judy had and how that affected her adult life both personally and professionally. To go about and do another movie about Judy takes us out of the world of biographies and shifts into the ugly side of sensationalism.
To set a time frame for this movie, the bulk of the story takes place in the last year of her life, specifically 1969. Her career in the US had completely bottomed out and she was unable to take care of her children, Lorna and Joey Luft (from 4th ex-husband Sid Luft). Being forced to leave them in the custody of Sid she agrees to a series of concerts in London believing that this will help put her career back on track and then give her the power needed to reclaim her children. Unfortunately, the demons that have been haunting her all her life follow her as we see her erratic behavior with people as well as concerts that ranged from smash successes to complete disasters.
This is where the majority of the movie is told, but it is punctuated with flashbacks to her days with MGM, starting with Wizard of Oz and on through those tumultuous years under Louie B. Mayer. It is here that we see the seeds that are sown that initially got her addicted to prescription medication, despite the risk to her health, at least until we are given a scene where she finds a new addiction that supersedes all others, and that is the limelight. Go back into the present and we see how Judy still craves that attention, but her personal life is in ruins because of the substance abuse, and the movie shows how that affected her professional life as well, and it’s not pretty. There were many moments where I found myself cringing because it felt at times that this was the movie’s intended focus. The movie is adapted from a stage play by Peter Quilter, and the screenplay for the movie is by Tom Edge, who reportedly wanted this movie to be much more true and precise and with less fantasy than the stageplay. Regardless if this is accurate or not, it crossed the line into bad taste.
Seeing Judy completely unravel seems unnecessary these days, especially given the fact that her life has been retold numerous times. To put her final months on the screen in all their ugly glory felt needlessly gratuitous, especially when the movie shifts from highlighting her spiraling out of control through substance abuse to that of a truly loving mother. This made the film very much unfocused. It was never able to achieve the right tone due to the movie almost glorifying the illness that dominated Judy’s life. It could be argued that the two aspects of Judy’s life were meant to play off of each other, but there was a complete lack of balance in this portrayal, which only served to take me out of the movie-watching experience. This is unfortunate because the one true virtue that the movie does show from time to time is Judy’s love for her children. Many criticisms could be hurled at Judy’s direction based on what this movie shows us, but one thing about her that cannot be taken away is the true love she had for her children.
The cast for this movie is largely competent, but this movie belongs to Renée Zellweger as Judy. She did more than just try to do an acting impersonation of Judy. Instead, it felt as if she somehow performed some black magic and had the ghost of Judy inhabit her throughout the entirety of this movie. What Zellweger accomplished as Judy is nothing less than spectacular. She not only perfected some of the physical ticks that Judy had late in her life but when she spoke all we heard was Judy Garland. Even when it came to the singing we were hearing Zellweger as Judy. Sadly this is the one negative element towards her performance. All of Zellweger’s singing was previously recorded in a studio for her to lip-sync later during the filming of the movie. Unfortunately, the “energy” in her physical performance did not match the energy we were hearing from the singing, making those performances somewhat jarring for me. Other than that, what Zellweger accomplished can only be described as an Oscar-worthy performance.
For being a movie that felt like cheap sensationalism, combined with one of the greatest acting performances this year, Judy only receives 3 out of 5 Rainbows.