This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Judy Garland and director Rupert Goold’s movie about Garland sometimes stumbles. “Judy” takes place during Garland’s final London performances in the winter of 1968, when her voice was not at its best. Renee Zellweger who plays Judy performed the songs herself, and she does a remarkable job without trying to match Garland at the peak of her vocal powers.
The film actually begins with a younger Judy (played by Darci Shaw) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz”. While the opening scene is visually striking, it starts the film on the wrong note since it then moves forward to the older Judy, who we see facing financial problems and a custody battle with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). It is her financial desperation that leads her to grab the offer for a series of concerts at a London supper club, and even though she depends upon booze and pills, she is a bit victorious as she tries to make a comeback. She is long past her prime yet she gets involved with a younger man, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who became her fifth husband.
Zellweger looks uncannily like Garland yet remains Renee Zellweger as well. She captures sides of Garland’s personality that not everyone acknowledges, particularly her self-deprecating sense of humor. When Deans meets her at a party, he makes a comment about “the greatest entertainer in the world,” and Garland asks, “Is Frank Sinatra here?”
In other scenes of the singer in a state of disheveled disarray, Zellweger tells us everything we need to know about Judy’s damaged past. There are fantastic musical performances; Zellweger’s rendition of one of Garland’s classics, “I’ll Go My Way by Myself,” is a breathtaking tour de force, and the actress lights up the screen with “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Her final performance of “Over the Rainbow,” of course, doesn’t compare to the Garland original in “The Wizard of Oz”, but the aging Garland, her voice hoarse and broken asks the audience to forgive her.
This final sequence ends on an overly sentimental note, when the audience at the supper club stands to help her complete the song. There are other questionable interludes such as Judy’s friendship with a couple of middle-aged gay fans that has some poignant elements but this works a little too hard to accentuate Garland’s connection to the Stonewall Riots. There are other great scenes, though. Jessie Buckley gives a superb performance as the woman hired to be Garland’s assistant; Buckley’s reactions of impatience are mixed with sympathy and brilliant. Wittrock has just the right touch of sleaze as the young lover.
Director Goold works beautifully with Zellweger, who gives a bravura performance. Her take on Judy Garland pushes her to the front of the awards queue. It’s a great performance in an otherwise so-so biopic, which brings the legendary entertainer to melancholic life.