“Judy” knows the song you want to hear and seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in keeping it from you until the very end.
There are false starts here and there – a few recognizable notes that play throughout the picture- but the Judy Garland biopic wisely saves the “Wizard of Oz” standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the film’s final minutes. By the time it arrives, it is something of a balm – not just for Judy Garland but for the film audience that has felt her pain over the last two hours.
“This next one- it isn’t a song about getting anywhere,” says Garland (played by Renee Zellweger in a career-best performance). “It’s about walking towards somewhere that you’ve dreamed of. And maybe the walk is every day of your life. And the walking has to be enough.”
“Judy” is a film about walking. It is about the uncommon courage it takes to simply get out of bed each morning and continue pursuing a happiness that you know may never come. It is a film about childhood trauma, alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness and, most unexpectedly of all, hope.
It is one of my favorite films of 2019.
The film takes us back to 1968 when Garland’s career is in its final gasps. She is difficult and unreliable, she’s told. No one will give her work. When we first meet her, she is essentially homeless and forced to drop off her children at the house of her ex-husband and ex-manager Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, one of the many British character actors to pop in). She’s faced with the necessity of touring in London so that she can secure her family’s financial future.
“So you’re saying I have to leave my children if I want to make enough money to be with my children?” Garland asks.
Once Garland arrives in London, “Judy” essentially becomes a concert film, alternating scenes of Garland’s fights with her many personal demons with top-notch performances of standards from such classic musicals as “Oz” and “Meet Me in St. Louis”. The songs are, to a one, delightful and enlivened by Zellweger’s excellent singing voice.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the wonders that Zellweger works in this role – both on the stage and off. She has not only captured the mannerisms and voice of a classic entertainer but her soul as well. This is a movie that would buckle under its own weight without a talented actress to carry it, but Zellweger makes it look easy. Director Rupert Goold takes his time luxuriating in close-ups of her face- all the better for you to see every small facial tic and every nuance.
If Zellweger is forgotten come Oscar-time, it will almost certainly be because of the film’s low profile and not because of any deficiencies in her performance.
Zellweger is in almost every scene and dominates the screen even when she is absent. You almost feel bad for old pros like Sewell, Michael Gambon and Jessie Buckley, who aren’t given much to do but make do with what they’ve got. I feel even worse for newcomer Darci Shaw, who, as a “Wizard of Oz”-era Garland, is destined to be compared both to Zellweger and the actual Garland herself. Still, Shaw pulls it off as best she can.
If you have even a cursory understanding of Garland’s personal life, you realize you are not in for a feel-good movie. The film (rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language and smoking) is not for everyone, especially young children. It may not even be for older audiences: During a Christmas Day viewing, my father had to physically walk away from the TV at points when things became uncomfortable.
The fact that this works at all is a tribute to the tonal balancing act performed by Goold and Zellweger. If the tone was off even a bit, “Judy” could have come off as judgmental or exploitative or as glorifying Garland’s drug and alcohol abuse. That the film avoids all three of these pitfalls is something of a miracle.
Instead, Zellweger and Goold look at Garland in the same way that a loving parent might. They certainly show disappointment in her choices- choices that prevented the world from spending more time with one of its most unique talents. But their portrayal of Garland is also sprinkled with love and grace and compassion. They realize that every one of us is Judy Garland but for the grace of God.
The film’s moments of love and compassion – shown both by Judy and to Judy on multiple occasions- stick with this reviewer more than the pain. I love how Judy puts the needs of her children first at great cost to herself. I admire how Judy’s employer extends forgiveness when she deserves it least and how her handler dresses her for a performance when she is too hungover to do it herself. I’m heartened by how Judy treats her fans with love and grace – and how they do the same in a moment of crisis.
“Judy” knows that walking is interminable and painful. It knows that there are times when even “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” cannot bring hope. But it also tells us that, when that time comes and we cannot walk anymore, our friends will pick us up and carry us the rest of the way.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.