Released: 10th October
Seen: 8th November
It’s probably fair to say that one of the most tragic figures in Hollywood history is Judy Garland. Performing since she was 2 years old, Judy went through the wringer despite having the kind of talent that should’ve made life easy for her. With her gifted comedic chops and a voice that no one else could even come close to, Judy had the kind of pure star quality that defied description… she was also turned into a drug addict by a mother who gave her uppers to perform and downers to go to sleep before she was ten. The head of the studio she did most of her early work at (Louis B Mayer, may he rot in hell) would have her living on chicken soup and regularly insulting her looks, calling her “my little hunchback” and putting her on amphetamine pills to help her lose weight (which was sadly common at the time). Go through any biography of Judy and you see the story of a woman who had more talent than anyone else that was repeatedly dragged down by a system that was willing to put her health at serious risk to squeeze every dollar out before discarding her. Her story is also one of resilience, of a woman who kept being knocked down and then got up again because you were never going to keep her down. Her last big moment was a British concert called Talk of the Town, the last thing she did before her early death in 1969. This biopic focuses on that brief period right at the end and that focus helps it, and it’s lead actress, considerably.
Judy is almost laser-focused on the 5 weeks that Judy performed at the Talk of the Town cabaret club, only using occasional flashbacks to fill in key details like where the pill addiction came from or to show us how vile Louis B Mayer (may he rot in hell) was. We start with Judy (Renée Zellweger) having to make the tough decision to leave her children in the care of her third husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). Once she knows her children are safe with him, she’s soon off in London trying her best to make enough money so she can move home and live with her kids again. Along the way she has a romantic relationship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), battles her addiction to the pills and tries desperately to keep her show going despite her addictions making it harder and harder to get her on the stage.
By picking this brief period of Judy’s life, this biopic can avoid the problem that a lot of other biopics fall into. All of them tend to have the same story and this avoids that by just picking one small portion of a life and hoping the audience knows how big a deal Judy Garland was. This works to a certain extent, I think it’s acceptable to say that everyone at some point has probably at least seen Wizard of Oz and probably a few other massive Judy movies, so taking that as assumed knowledge helps. Of course, there are some key things in this movie that didn’t happen in real life and a quick reading of any biography of Judy can tell you what’s been changed for dramatic purposes. That’s kind of the hard part about adapting stories about people’s lives, life doesn’t make narrative sense, so they change some things to make an understandable plotline that gives us the idea of what Judy was going through. Basically, the structure is fine but don’t take it as gospel for what Judy went through.
The undeniably great part is Renée’s acting, her performance as Judy is one of the better imitations of a person that we’ve seen in a while. She gets a lot of the little Judy mannerisms, her charm and her timing are perfect and you can see Judy in Renée every time that she’s acting. Where the stumbling block comes in is the singing because Renée does not sound like Judy. To be fair, no one sounds like Judy. Her voice was unique and special, which is why she was something truly amazing, so when we spend so long to dramatically build up to Judy’s first song and instead I’m hearing Renée… it’s jarring. That first song is meant to be the moment where we understand why all the hassle was worth it, Judy doesn’t even hum a note for a long time in the movie. We spend ages watching them desperately try to get her on stage, she doesn’t rehearse and she’s late to the show and you expect everything to crumble and then time stops, the camera never cuts as the first number is performed… by Renée, who is quite a good singer and manages to make it work but her singing voice is not anywhere near Judy’s. This is one of those times when they probably should’ve dubbed in the original recordings and no one would’ve been able to object. Still, the acting during the songs is so good that after the first few songs I found myself going “I’ll accept this” and going along with the musical interpretation of the character.
Judy is certainly not the definitive version of the Judy Garland story, but it’s a really good version. It gives us a peek into just how Judy ended up, her story is a story that resonates in this era. Considering we’re not in the Me Too era, Judy’s story is one that shows what happens when women are treated like shit and when actors are abused at the hands of studio heads who care more about box office than about actual people. The movie itself is emotional and heartbreaking, touching on a lot of great things about Judy and giving Renée a performance that’s almost scientifically designed to give her an Oscar nomination. While the film has its problems, while I might gripe that Renée doesn’t sound exactly like one of the best singers of all time, while I might be concerned that they’re not telling a fully accurate story regarding Judy’s life… it’s still a good film with a great lead performance and it’s probably my second favourite biopic of the year, so there’s that.