Judy examines a small sliver of Judy Garland's life and lends it more importance than it deserves. Director Rupert Goold's disjointed film chronicles the legendary entertainer's last nightclub engagement and the personal, professional, physical, and emotional struggles the debilitated, declining star faced during that turbulent time. Though Renée Zellweger gives a heartfelt performance that largely honors Garland and celebrates her resilience, artistry, and optimism, it's a pale substitute for the real thing and not enough to salvage this sad, muddled film. The curious should give it a rent for Zellweger's portrayal, but please keep this in mind: There's a lot more to Garland than Judy.
As a passionate admirer of Judy Garland, I must admit to harboring very mixed feelings when I heard a big-screen movie was going to be made about the beloved star's final months. A full-fledged biopic spanning Garland's entire life might have excited me, but I didn't see the need for a film that would focus exclusively on a single, turbulent London nightclub engagement in early 1969 just six months before Garland died of an accidental prescription drug overdose at age 47. During that sad, desperate period of her life, the "world's greatest entertainer" was weak, ill, broke, virtually homeless, desperately lonely, and only able to periodically muster even a glimmer of the vocal brilliance that defined and sustained her since the age of two when she toddled onto the stage of her father's movie theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota and sang endless choruses of "Jingle Bells." Judy, I believed, would do nothing more than exploit Garland's frailties for box office gain and perpetuate the misguided perception of her as a pill-popping, drunken, self-destructive diva.
I really wasn't sure I ever wanted to see Judy. In fact, I dithered so long during its theatrical run, I missed it completely. Yet when it came time to review the home video release, I felt I couldn't avoid the film any longer. Though many critics only marginally familiar with Garland have assessed Judy, I felt it was important for someone who has admired, studied, and written extensively about the iconic star to take a look at this movie with a keen eye. And I'm glad I did. Understandably, I felt more than a little trepidation when I fired up the Blu-ray several days ago, but I'm happy to report Judy isn't as bad as I feared it might be...but it isn't as good as it could have - and should have - been.
Judy depicts a Garland who's at the end of her rope, physically, emotionally, professionally, financially, and mentally. We first see her and her two younger children, Lorna and Joe, turned away from a posh hotel because she hasn't paid her bills. Surviving by her wits and with the aid of medication, Garland (portrayed with gusto, reverence, and grace by Renée Zellweger) accepts a five-week engagement at London's Talk of the Town nightclub in an effort to earn enough money to continue to raise her children. She leaves Lorna and Joe with her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), who squandered much of her fortune at the racetrack while they were married and with whom she's engaged in a bitter custody battle, and heads overseas alone.
The rest of the movie chronicles the rollercoaster nightclub gig and Garland's struggles to overcome her insecurities, keep her demons and anxiety at bay, fulfill her professional obligations, deal with debilitating insomnia, come to terms with her diminishing abilities and appeal, maintain her health, and navigate a burgeoning romance with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a much younger man with questionable motives who latches onto Garland, tries to help revitalize her career, and soon becomes her fifth and final husband. Through it all, Garland perseveres with her trademark humor, indomitable sense of optimism, and a steely grit born from a lifetime of triumphs, failures, illness, and dazzling, improbable comebacks. The question is can this mercurial phoenix somehow rise from the ashes one more time, or at the very least keep herself afloat?
The good news is director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge largely treat Garland with the respect, reverence, and sensitivity she deserves. Judy is a dimensional, sympathetic, fairly balanced portrait of a complex, deeply troubled woman trying to get through a very difficult time in her life. The film doesn't sugarcoat its subject's failings, but doesn't sensationalize them either. We see Judy take her "medication," enjoy copious amounts of alcohol, and exhibit occasional fits of temperament. No doubt about it, Garland was a high-maintenance commodity whose neediness was as legendary as her fame, and she drives her London assistant (Jessie Buckley) to distraction with her impulsive, erratic behavior. More importantly, though, the movie paints Judy as a devoted, caring mother and hard-working entertainer who loves her craft - and especially her audiences - despite decades of abuse by the industry that created and exploited her.
Garland also felt an affinity for and championed the "different," the less fortunate, the persecuted. She was one of the entertainment world's first gay icons and proudly embraced the distinction. The most touching moments of Judy may be fictional, but they depict her tender interactions with a middle-aged homosexual couple she meets outside the nightclub's stage door and with whom she spends a warm, convivial evening. Garland's difficult childhood, myriad troubles, and sensitive nature helped her empathize with others who struggled to find acceptance and contentment within society's rigid, judgmental boundaries, and the film nicely showcases this facet of her character.
My main gripe with Judy - and it's a big one - is that it provides no context of Garland's life as a whole. We see her largely as a train-wreck, an accomplished artist who's past her prime, battling to maintain a tenuous grip on her family, career, and self-esteem, and caught in a downward spiral of alcohol, pills, anorexia, neuroses, and overwork. We're told over and over she's the "world's greatest entertainer," but we never see any evidence of it on screen. Her performances, as embodied by Zellweger, only show glimmers of greatness, as that was all Judy could conjure up at the time. Though Zellweger's vocals are more than adequate from a musical standpoint, they don't really resemble Garland's distinctive tone and don't come close to conveying the powerful lung capacity and visceral emotional connection to her songs and audiences that defined the legendary star and inspired in her admirers deep love and fanatical devotion.
As a result, I worry over the message Judy sends about its subject. The generations of moviegoers who possess only the slimmest knowledge of Judy Garland and recognize her only as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz will likely scratch their heads and say, "That's the world's greatest entertainer?" The film needs some sense of Garland at her peak - wowing the audience at Carnegie Hall in a concert still regarded by many to be the greatest night in show business history or losing the Best Actress Oscar for A Star Is Born in what Groucho Marx described at the time as "the biggest robbery since Brink's" - to be able to fully absorb and appreciate the trials and tribulations she faced at the end of her life. The Garland here is a sad, lonely, sick, frail little woman with incredible resilience and optimism, but she's a shell of her former self. I don't fault the film for depicting that stage of her life (and it does so as well as a film can), but that tiny sliver of time shouldn't define this beloved icon. If you want to learn about the real Judy Garland, don't watch Judy first. Go to YouTube and watch this:
this...(Zellweger wears a copy of the same dress in the film and sings a much more subdued version of the same song)
and especially THIS
Then if you're still interested in what happened to this dynamic diva at the end of her life, pop Judy into your Blu-ray player.
And take what you see with a couple of grains of salt. Like almost every biopic ever made, facts are modified and scenarios are invented for dramatic effect. The errors, adjustments, and fabrications are too numerous to list, and they're complemented by several over-the-top, almost surreal flashbacks of a teenage Garland (played with wide-eyed innocence by Darci Shaw) around the time she was filming The Wizard of Oz. These poorly conceived, occasionally cartoonish vignettes lamely strive to pinpoint the origins of her addictions and insecurities, which were perpetuated by the abusive, dictatorial Hollywood studio system, a lecherous, manipulative Louis B. Mayer (the big boss at MGM), and Garland's monstrous stage mother. Unfortunately, the flashbacks only skim the surface and further emphasize the depressing, depraved aspects of Garland's existence.
Yes, what happened to Garland 30 years prior to the events depicted in Judy contributed to her eventual downfall, but all of it needs to be tempered by at least a little bit of joy. Believe it or not, there was substantial joy in Garland's life, but you'd never know it from watching this film. Though she endured more than her share of terrible lows, her highs were stratospheric, and simply showing her rising to the occasion once or twice in a couple of numbers doesn't begin to simulate the kind of abject adulation and uninhibited pandemonium she inspired over and over again throughout her career.
Zellweger admirably doesn't indulge in any undue Oscar-baiting. Hers is a restrained, largely believable performance that succeeds by wisely foregoing imitation in favor of projecting the essence and aura of Garland's larger-than-life persona. In a couple of shots, she looks strikingly like Garland, and works hard to adopt the star's posture and gait. All too often, though, Zellweger relies on squinting her eyes and pursing her lips to conjure the character, and over time such mannerisms become distracting.
It's tough to be too critical, though, because playing Garland is, to put it mildly, a daunting task. Just ask Judy Davis, who won a well-deserved Emmy for her portrayal of Garland in the very good 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (a film that also merits a Blu-ray release). Davis often uncannily channels Garland, beautifully capturing her nervous energy, vulnerability, humor, tenderness, magnetism, and rage. Zellweger does a fine job as well, but her work pales by comparison. She's already received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress, and an Oscar nod is surely in the offing...and not undeserved. Much like Michelle Williams, whose terrific, Oscar-nominated turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn engendered well-deserved plaudits, Zellweger earns props not only for tackling such a Herculean challenge, but also for crafting a heartfelt performance that exceeds expectations and always remains true and reverential to its source.
The singing, however, is another issue. Zellweger can sing, that's for sure (she proved it in Chicago), but it's impossible for almost anyone to simulate one of the greatest and most recognizable voices of the 20th century. (That's probably why Davis lip-synced to Garland's own vocals - and very effectively, too - in Me and My Shadows.) Zellweger tries her best to evoke Garland in the musical sequences, but it's a bridge too far for anyone who's more than vaguely familiar with Garland's work. (The same was true for Kevin Spacey, who misguidedly sang for himself in the bland Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea.) As Garland karaoke, it's passable, but Zellweger's performances of a handful of Garland standards just can't convey what a magical force of nature Garland was on a concert stage. (Again, I refer you to the links I provided above.)
In the end, most of Judy's failures are noble ones, which makes them slightly easier to forgive. The film has its heart in the right place, which is a blessing, but it repeatedly comes up short. The pacing drags at times (the movie runs about 20 minutes too long), a critical telephone booth scene is practically plagiarized from one of Garland's own films (I Could Go On Singing), and there are too many shots of Garland wandering the streets of London at night alone...something I'm almost sure a woman of her notoriety - especially considering her compromised health and fragile emotional state - never would have or could have done for myriad reasons.
Judy puts the best possible spin on a difficult episode in Garland's topsy-turvy life. It tries to be a study of resilience and hope in the face of despair, and succeeds to a certain extent. Though we applaud Garland's indomitable spirit, unfortunately the movie predominantly inspires profound feelings of pity and sadness both for a life cut short and a rare, blazing talent that was extinguished far too soon. Ironically and tragically, pity and sadness are the last emotions Judy Garland would ever want linked to her name. For someone so beloved, who achieved so much success and acclaim, it's a shame Hollywood has failed her once again.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Judy arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A standard-def DVD and leaflet containing a code to access the digital copy are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for Juliet, Naked, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, and Whitney precede the full-motion menu with music.
Shot on digital, Judy looks bright, vibrant, and razor sharp on Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer features bold primaries, nicely muted pastels, deep blacks, and crisp whites. Depth and dimensionality bolster the impact of the slick, pristine image, but the lack of grain diminishes the movie's 1960s period feel. A bit of texture would have added an essential nostalgic quality to the film and especially enhanced the flashback sequences. Shadow delineation is quite good, close-ups render fine facial features well, costume textures are vivid, and patterns resist shimmering. There's a lot of razzle-dazzle in Judy, and this superior transfer captures it all.
Excellent fidelity, tonal depth, and a palpable surround feel distinguish the high-quality DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which provides crystal clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale handles all the variances of the orchestrations and Zellweger's vocals without any distortion, and there's no annoying level boost kicking in at the start of the musical numbers. Dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and sonic accents like popping flashbulbs and shattering glass are crisp and distinct. A natural surround presence provides an immersive feel, especially during the nightclub sequences, and no imperfections mar the mix.
Just a couple of negligible supplements are included on the disc.
Featurette: "From the Heart: The Making of Judy" (HD, 4 minutes) - This brief piece includes behind-the-scenes footage and interview snippets with Zellweger, director Rupert Goold, the real-life Rosalyn Wilder (Garland's assistant during the Talk of the Town engagement portrayed by Jessie Buckley in the film), and other members of the cast and crew, all of whom praise Garland's talent, magnetism, and hopeful attitude, as well as Zellweger's acting and vocal abilities.
Image Gallery (HD, 1 minute) - Thirteen color scene stills and production shots comprise this slide show with music.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1 minute) - A surprisingly short preview for Judy completes the extras package.
Judy isn't the complete Judy Garland story, just a vignette chronicling the last nightclub engagement of the legendary entertainer's too-brief, too-troubled, too-exhausting life. Garland's courage, resilience, and optimism in the face of despair elevate the downbeat tale, but can't quite salvage it. Renée Zellweger's sensitive, much-ballyhooed, but not entirely successful portrayal of Garland is the glue that holds together this disjointed picture, which is enhanced by strong video and audio transfers on the Blu-ray from Lionsgate. There's a lot more to Garland than Judy, so if you're unfamiliar with this iconic star, I highly recommend immersing yourself in her work on YouTube before watching this uneven and unnecessary movie. Give it a rent to check out Zellweger's performance, but not to experience the essence of Judy Garland, whose unadorned brilliance burns brightly and authentically elsewhere.