Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy. PIC: Universal

Film, Screen

A Garland aficionado reviews new biopic ‘Judy’

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Bill Farr is an art director with a long-standing fascination with the work of Judy Garland. Her ill-fated concert tour of Australia was the inspiration for his exhibition of photo-realist drawings, and the subject of his production JUDY • AUSTRALIA • 1964, which premiered in Melbourne this year.

He reviews Judy, starring Renée Zellweger in the title role.

*

There are some genuinely moving moments in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, some spine-tingling moments of revelation – that yes, this is Garland up on the screen.

The moments are fleeting. 

The quick recognition of a long-shot of Garland in her dressing room, surrounded by flowers, with a portion of her face reflected in a magnifying mirror – the inspiration for which are black-and-white images of the star backstage in 1968 – brings the moment gloriously to life. The devastating call from a London phone box to her younger daughter in the US, mirroring a similar scene in Garland’s final film, I Could Go On Singing. Judy backstage, behind the curtain, waiting to go on – summoning up the powerful nervous anticipation of performance.

One gets the same anticipation whenever Renée Zellweger’s Judy arrives on stage. The Talk of The Town (the theatre where Garland performed her final five-week season of shows) is thrillingly reconstructed. The atmosphere is just right. The noise, the colour, the musos – there to do a job, the audience – there to be entertained. It’s just about perfect.

And then Zellweger sings.

Much has been made of the fact that the actress does her own singing in this film. One applauds the bravery of that decision, but, sadly, it’s the film’s biggest flaw.

Garland fans will be engaged, will recognise and empathise, but will ultimately be disappointed with the presentation of the one thing that made her great – her singing.

Goold assumes that we know the greatness of Garland, but we never see (or hear) it. Zellweger’s voice comes close only once, during an effective rendition of Over The Rainbow*. This comes at the end of the film, with its satisfying – if melodramatic – close.

However, in the scenes where Garland is apparently at her best (and at her best, there was none better) it’s hard to find the legend. True, in 1968, her voice was past its prime, but it could still soar, and it could still move.

For any filmgoer new to Garland, the set-piece musical performances would do little to enlighten them of her incredible talent – with the shock of her downfall losing its power. 

So, who is this film for?

Zellweger fans will be delighted by the film and her performance. And with good reason. She captures the impish humour of Garland – the one thing that seemed to hold her together through drama after drama. Her delivery is often uncannily accurate. The make-up and wardrobe departments also shine (except for the cosmetic teeth, which appear to have been borrowed from Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek– an Academy Award, please, for dental invention). 

Garland fans will be engaged, will recognise and empathise, but will ultimately be disappointed with the presentation of the one thing that made her great – her singing. And everyone else? It’s an engaging biopic with a straightforward narrative, which likely suffers against its two most recent rivals: Bohemian Rhapsody, with its soaring dramatic arc and effectively reconstructed performances; and Rocketman’s fantasy retelling of a similarly troubled life in the public eye.

My advice?

If you want to see an actress become Judy Garland, go no further than 2001’s Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, a two-part television miniseries, with the title role played brilliantly by Judy Davis. Davis had the luxury of Garland’s voice to mime to, but it’s some of the best lip-syncing you’ll ever see (outside of a gay pub in Prahran or Oxford Street).

If you want to see Judy Garland become Judy Garland, then see the aforementioned I Could Go On Singing, made in 1963 – a melodrama that enjoyed a tepid reception – which drew eerie parallels to Garland’s own life. 

And most notably, she does the singing.

*This is an edited version of the review. The original version claimed that some of Zellweger’s songs appeared to have been pre-recorded, then filmed. However, all the songs in the movie were filmed live.

3 responses to “A Garland aficionado reviews new biopic ‘Judy’

  1. I feel the film shows little more than Garland as the tormented, sad shadow of herself and as the bullied, occasionally defiant, child actor. Where is the celebrated star at the peak of her (adult) career? This is what is of enduring interest and what a biopic should be paying tribute to—not the tragic gay icon. Drugs and alcohol have been the undoing of virtually every actress who becomes a “gay icon”. This is exactly not the reason these individuals are glorified or even of interest. A faithful biopic should at lest try to show succeeding generations what all the fuss was about—why Judy Garland was great when she was great.

  2. I agree the Judy Davis in the TV biopic is hard to beat, although I thought this movie was effective in showing the abuse of Judy from her mother, producer Meyer and some of her husbands. Tragic that someone with so much talent and who worked so hard died penniless. Anger was a predominant emotion I felt at the end of this movie. So many people using Judy as a commodity for their own ends. Well worth seeing.

  3. Thank you for your review.
    I had been excited about this film since it was announced. Being a fan of Zellweger, who I believe to be one of the most transformative and hardworking actors on her level, I dug through interviews and articles about this project as much as I could. And I’m under the impression that all of the performances were recorded live, none of them was dubbed. Obviously Garland’s singing voice is far more powerful, but Renee successfully transformed her voice both in terms of the craft and the sound. It is awe inspiring to see a performer taking such a leap from their own capabilities, and not to mention that there were moments in Renee’s live performance, Judy came to life.
    With the decision of making Renee sing live and using her voice in the film (which is an incredibly courageous choice and dedication to the project), the director was trying to capture the relationship between the performer and the audience as it happens in real time, which also illuminates the theme that the love they built between Judy and her audience when she was performing was the force that kept Garland going. And there was no other way to capture that on camera unless the performer, in the case Renee, sang live. To me, the end result was stunning and triumphant.

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