JudyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/27/19 09:12:59
Judy Garland was—hell, still is—one of the most astonishingly prodigious talents to ever emerge from the entertainment industry. Technically, her gifts were beyond measure—she was virtually unmatchable as a singer, a better-than-average dancer and, when given the chance to prove it in films like “A Star is Born” (1954), a powerhouse of an actress to boot. What made her so special is the humanity and emotion that she brought to every performance, whether in front of a camera or on the stage in front of an audience, that made her performances all the more convincing. No matter what the circumstances, you always got the sense that she was putting everything that she had into each and every performance and it was that sense of vulnerability intertwined with her performer’s precision that caused audiences to respond to her so strongly. Unfortunately, she found herself in an industry that left her constantly surrounded by people who would ruthlessly exploit both her talents and those vulnerabilities by any means necessary for as long as they possibly could. When she finally passed away in 1969 at the age of 47, the shock of her death wasn’t so much that she died far too young as it was that she somehow managed to hold out for as long as she did.It has been more than a half-century since Garland’s death but, as the new film “Judy” sadly proves, the entertainment industry still is not done with exploiting Garland and her legacy for their own ends. There is a great film to be made on her life and times that could properly celebrate her and her gifts while at the same time excoriate the various influences and factors that led to her downfall—it could be argued that one was already made with the 2001 miniseries “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadow” with Judy Davis delivering a knockout performance as the star—but “Judy” is not even remotely close to hitting that target. While not a full accounting of her life per se—it focuses on one brief late-life period with occasional flashbacks to her days as a rising starlet on the MGM lot—it never displays any apparent interest in who Garland was, either as a person or as a performer. The real force driving the film seems to be to create the kind of paint-by-numbers biopic that exists only to score an Oscar nomination from voters who have lately tended to confuse an adequate impersonation of a famous person with great acting.
After a prologue featuring the first of many flashbacks set during the MGM years in which the young Judy (Darci Shaw) suffers under the thumb of the studio system represented by chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the story proper picks up in 1968 with Judy (Renee Zellweger) plowing through another low-paying gig and then having the latest in a series of ugly confrontations with ex-husband/manager Sid Luft when she shows up at his place with their two young kids in the middle of the night when she is booted from her hotel. When he insists on keeping the kids in order to give them a stable environment, Judy finally agrees to a long-standing offer from British impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to do a five-week engagement at his posh Talk of the Town nightclub in London in order to make enough money to stabilize herself and provide for a custody battle.
Judy arrives with great fanfare but despite the best efforts of her handler, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), things begin to go off the rails almost immediately. Judy refuses to rehearse and when opening night arrives, she is drunk, late and practically has to be pushed on stage before the packed audience who have come to either witness a triumph or the performance equivalent of a slo-motion car crash. She survives the opening and as the engagement proceeds, there are enough moments of triumph here and there to suggest that it might prove to be a career-reviving triumph after all. As it goes on, however, the demons begin to return and Judy seems less fixated on the performances and more interested in Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a much younger lover who is clearly pitching himself to be husband number five with a line of patter about future plans that she is just a little too addled to realize is a lot of hot air.
The scene where Judy sings for the first time in London turns out to be the central sequence of the entire film, though not for anything dealing with the narrative per se. At this point in the proceedings, roughly 45 minutes in or so, we have seen witnessed virtually every aspect of Zellweger’s Judy Garland impersonation except for the most important of all—we have not heard her sing yet. Yes, Zellweger has sung in movies before with adequate results but there is a wide gulf between doing a couple of tunes in “Chicago” and stepping into the shoes of one of the greatest vocalists of all time. In terms of sounding like Garland, Zellweger more or less passes the test—her voice cannot begin to compare with what Garland could do at the peak of her powers but since Garland herself was about as far from that peak as she had ever been at that point in her career, the discrepancy is not that great. The problem is that while Zellweger’s singing works from a technical perspective, it lack the raw emotional power that Garland almost always managed to evoke, even in her worst moments. In that aforementioned Garland miniseries, Judy Davis was lip-synching to recordings of Garland but she was able to conjure up the emotional power that Garland could convey and as a result, her performance transcended mere imitation into something deeper and more striking. Zellweger, on the other hand, never gets beyond imitation and while her efforts are considerable, the results are slightly underwhelming.
If Zellweger’s performance as Judy is an essentially shallow turn that offers viewers a flashy surface but not much of anything in the way of real depth, it makes sense because “Judy” as a whole suffers from the same basic problem. Based on the Tony-nominated stage play “End of the Rainbow,” the film wants us to get to know the real person behind the icon but has no idea of what it wants to say about her or the tragedies and triumphs of her life other than “Gosh, what a trouper!” Instead, Tom Edge’s screenplay is little more than just another blandly predictable biopic, the kind that “Walk Hard” brutally skewered a long time ago. There are times when the writing is so clunky and on-the-nose that it almost feels as if the film is leaning toward self-parody. We all know, for example, that Garland was and continues to be an icon of tremendous importance to the LGBTQ community. How does “Judy” illustrate this? With an embarrassingly cloying sequence in which she runs into a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who invite her up to their memorabilia-festooned apartment where they pay extended homage to her by explaining her importance to them in a world in which they are surrounded by persecution while she gratefully accepts their fealty. This is bad enough on its own but it actually get even more shameless later on during the climax when Judy, at the end of her physical and emotional ropes, cannot find the strength to sing “Over the Rainbow” and that very same couple leads the audience in backing her up until she is able to pull herself together one last time. The only seemingly fresh twist on a very familiar theme is the conceit of flashing back at times to her horrifying MGM days, presumably to add a touch of the #METOO movement to the proceedings. This is material that could serve as the basis of its own movie but here, the flashback are awkwardly shoehorned into the mix and never do much to inform or illuminate the central narrative.Judy Garland was a truly singular talent but you would not know that if you had only “Judy” to go on. Rather than paint an affecting portrait of a desperate artist trying to connect with her gifts for one last hurrah, it is merely a less-than-affecting effort by artists desperate for award season love via the musical biopic format that has proven to be a viable path to Oscar gold in recent years. Whether it succeeds to that end remains to be seen—it is just shameless and hammy enough to possibly get a push from viewers wary of the darker, stranger and more challenging films and performances out there. Taken on its own merits as a movie and as a way of grappling with the enduring legacy of Judy Garland and what she means in today’s pop culture firmament, “Judy” is, sad to a say, a drag.
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