⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
Stars: Renée Zellweger, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell
Writer: Peter Quilter
Director: Rupert Goold
On its lavishly produced and lovingly crafted surface, Judy is about the last months of Judy Garland’s life — specifically her triumphant yet troubled series of sold-out concerts in London, barely six months before her 1969 death of a drug overdose.
But there’s also a persistent subtext to every frame: This is emphatically a movie about Renée Zellweger playing Judy Garland, reclaiming the mantle of “serious actor” that marked Zellweger for greatness nearly two decades ago, when in three consecutive years she was nominated for three Oscars and won one.
To which I can only add: Mission Accomplished. Zellweger mesmerizes as the singer, capturing that doe-eyed stare, the endearingly awkward mannerisms, the black hole of neediness that seemed to suck at Judy’s life force as surely as did the amphetamines and barbiturates that coursed through her system from her earliest days as a child star.
But for any movie musical biography like Judy, there’s a built-in pitfall: At some point, someone has to decide whether to let the star do the singing or have them lip sync a recording, either of the original artist or a passable sound-alike. Zellweger bravely opts for the former, and it’s been reported she trained for months to come as close as possible to recreating Garland’s unique vocal qualities.
Commendable, but in this case a course that was doomed from the start. After all, if anyone else could sing like Judy Garland, they’d be selling out the Palace Theatre for 27 straight nights. I suppose no one really knows if it was the drugs or the booze or the crippling insecurities that did it, but Garland’s late-life singing style was inimitable: Invariably hitting the right note, then warbling a half-step above and below it — barely in control yet ultimately in command — before settling back at the exact spot where she started. Zellweger can’t do it, nor could anyone else. For Judy it was organic, like breathing.
Still, because Zellweger comes to the role with such naked determination, the musical numbers in Judy remain beyond compelling. Director Rupert Goold fills the screen with Zellweger’s face, putting every lopsided smile and nervous sideways glance under his camera’s electron microscope.
Goold happens to be one of England’s leading directors of Shakespeare plays, and he puts the experience to good use, painting Judy as a tragic figure on a scale with Lady Macbeth. The script by Peter Quilter — loosely based on his stage play End of the Rainbow — populates Judy’s last days with a diverse cast of characters real and imagined. Michael Gambon, his voice rumbling with the sound of distant thunder, is touching as the London producer willing to take a chance on the irresponsible singer. Rufus Sewell brings unexpected compassion to the role of Judy’s third husband, Sid Luft. (The film takes some chronological liberties regarding Judy’s five hubbies, but, really, who’s counting? I doubt Judy was.)
Most memorable is a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Phil Dunster) who ask for Judy’s autograph after a London performance — and end up bringing the lonely star home for scrambled eggs. The setup for that encounter seems hokey, but it leads to an early-morning reverie that seems to offer a glimpse at the off-guard Judy; the one who could, at least occasionally, focus on someone other than herself.
It’s the film’s one and only Get Happy moment, and like Judy herself, Judy could have used more of those.
Featured image: Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in the film Judy. Photo credit: David Hindley Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions
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