Director Rupert Goold’s 2019 film stars Renée Zellweger in the title role of Judy Garland and takes place in 1968; with her glory days long behind her, Judy is struggling for money and performs in various venues around the country in order to make ends meet but as she ferries her two children along with her, the constant moving starts to take its toll on the kids and soon, Judy is compelled to accept an offer to perform for five weeks at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London, under the supervision of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), taking her away from her children as she leaves them with former husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). As she performs with the goal of making it back to her kids, Judy runs herself ragged as she loses sleep and relies on pills, she enters into a new relationship with musician Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), gets friendly with two particularly adoring fans, and we also see how she was abused and mistreated while shooting The Wizard of Oz, under the unfair treatment of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).
Going into this film, I wasn’t exactly a fan of Judy Garland, having only seen her in The Wizard of Oz and being the only person in the known universe who didn’t think much of her in that particular film. But with a biopic-y film such as this, there was always the chance that the film would make me a fan because after all, films like Whitney, Straight Outta Compton and even Rocketman made me believe and did excellent jobs in making me appreciate the talents of the musical artists portrayed, despite being lukewarm about them beforehand. Unfortunately, though it made me appreciate her a little more and gave me a bit of insight into what she went through, Judy didn’t exactly get me to fall in love with the popular entertainer and her story could’ve been told so much better.
Because the main problem with the film is that it’s rather unexciting and the workmanlike direction, bloated story and so-so visuals make Judy quite a dry and run-of-the-mill biopic, although to its credit, “biopic” isn’t exactly the right word and much like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool or Stan and Ollie, Judy doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story of her life as a standard biopic would do, but instead focuses on a particular period of her life. Two if you include the Wizard of Oz days. But having said that, Judy still isn’t the most exciting or intriguing film and the direction of Rupert Goold is partly to blame for this; with a background mainly in Shakespearean stage productions, Goold doesn’t infuse the film with enough imagination, style or panache and although the musical numbers manage to provide just enough entertainment (though Renée Zellweger’s performance is the main reason the musical scenes work), most of the film is pretty standard biopic fare and Goold doesn’t do nearly enough to make Judy stand out against other films. Pacing is also an issue as the film is longer than it needs to be and Goold lets the pace drag quite a bit as the film chugs along from one random event to another, the tone being downbeat a lot of the time, and attempts at humour fall by the wayside a lot of the time.
The writing would also appear to be a bit of an issue because Judy is too uncertain of just what it wants to say, what the main “message” is, and it’s one of those weird films that says too much yet nothing at all. With a runtime of two hours, the film attempts to “dig deep” and give as much information as possible about what happened to Judy during this time but in all honesty, after the film, I had trouble recalling what actually happened in the film. Maybe Judy is a film that’s primarily meant to be watched by fans of Judy Garland as they would recognise all the real-life people involved and pick up various references and whatnot, but to a layman like me, the film’s story, though serviceable, is pretty unexciting and it tries to juggle various plot threads, characters and themes without being completely successful.
But despite the average direction and story, the film is given life by Renée Zellweger as she truly becomes Judy Garland – a transformative performance if ever there was one – and she performs excellently in the dramatic scenes and definitely in the musical numbers. Clearly, I’m no expert but I’d say that she gets the physical aspects down to a tee and her body language, voicework and facial expressions are well practiced and very effective; it’s a superb acting performance that gets us to truly feel for this flawed character and it’s in the musical numbers where she shines the brightest because she sings the songs brilliantly and definitely sounds like Garland (even though there’s a noticable difference between her “imperfect” speaking voice and her accomplished singing voice – the latter is clearly more polished than the former and it appears as though her songs have come directly from the soundtrack album, if that makes any sense). All in all, this is surely an awards contender for Zellweger and even though it’s not the greatest performance in a true life tale that I’ve ever seen, a nomination would be deserved because she truly becomes Judy Garland and gives a deep, emotional, powerful and relatable performance.
As for the rest of the cast, they all play second, third, fourth fiddle to Zellweger but most perform with heart and commitment; the wonderful Jessie Buckley is pleasant as Rosalyn – a dutiful aide who we see just really wants to be friends with Judy – but it’s hardly a role that showcases her incredible talents, Rufus Sewell acts very well directly opposite Zellweger in the more heated scenes as the ex-husband, Michael Gambon lends his unmistakable voice to a role that doesn’t go anywhere in particular, Andy Nyman makes a surprisingly emotional impact as superfan Dan, letting us hear a rather touching and important story about the harsh treatment he received in the past, and Richard Cordery is clearly unpleasant and intimidating as exploitative studio head Louis B. Mayer, not going over the top and showing us how an authority figure can appear supportive and trustworthy while secretly harbouring ulterior motives and a hidden mean streak.
And despite all that I’ve said about the writing and direction, it can’t be denied that Judy‘s intentions are pure and it has plenty of heart and soul to offer audiences, with an undeniable affection for its titular character; the film does have its emotional moments and when Judy is going through her struggles, the film does a good job in getting us to feel for her, particularly in the final moments where, despite a few incredibly cheesy moments (“one last song”? Hmm, whatever could it be?), she takes her “final bow” and we truly appreciate her for the (flawed) talent that she was. And despite the slightly stale biopic-y main plot thread, the flashbacks to the Wizard of Oz days are often the best parts of the film because it’s truly shocking and eye-opening to see how she was treated so harshly by the studio (forbidden from eating or having fun and given so many pills) and it’s here where the visuals are strongest and where the story is at its most interesting.
Judy is hindered by uninspired direction and a bloated, unfocused story but its heart and soul can’t be denied and Renée Zellweger’s impressive, transformative performance makes it work.
★ ★ ★
And as a little “treat”, here’s a 30 second audio review that I sent to Kermode and Mayo. Getting to hear my voice for the first time – isn’t that exciting?!
Please let me know if the link doesn’t work!