I FINALLY got to see this movie. For several months now a lot of talk has been focusing on “Judy”, the biopic based on the Tony-nominated Broadway play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter that focuses on the final months of the life of child star and American sweetheart Judy Garland. With Renee Zellweger in the title role “Judy” has garnered some early award season buzz, specifically for Zellweger’s performance which immediately put the film on my radar as a must see, but was the final product worth all the hype? Let’s find out in my review of “Judy”.
One thing to remember about “Judy” going in is that it’s not really about the child and teen actress we all knew from movies like “The Wizard of Oz”. “Judy” instead focuses on the end of Judy Garland’s life when she takes a job performing for sell out crowds at the Talk of the Town in London to make ends meet. However, we do get flashbacks of Judy’s childhood which depict how she was forced to embrace pills and drugs in order to stay thin and cope with her busy child star schedule. Renee Zellweger portrays the older Judy while Darci Shaw plays a younger Judy and both are very good in their performances. Zellweger’s performance lives up to the hype as she completely loses herself in her portrayal of Garland with a physique and mental instability to match to evoke her deteriorating state in her final months. Zellweger sells every moment of her screen time making you feel genuinely bad for Garland’s tragic story right to the bittersweet finale. Zellweger also did all of the singing, the first time we’ve really seen her stretch her vocal chops, and every performance, from the fast paced show tunes to the inevitable rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, is packed with sincerity, poise, and, at times, the required emotional resonance to sell the song and the moment properly making for a heartbreaking character study of a fallen superstar.
The problem is that Zellweger’s Judy really is the dominating performance and while that might not seem like an obvious issue because, well, the movie is about Judy after all it does create a pretty standard good-problem-to-have scenario that also plagued the recent “Joker” movie as well. The secondary and side characters are left in the dust in favor of a powerhouse performance by the lead. If you read my “Joker” review you know this is far from enough for me to consider “Judy” a bad movie, but with “Joker” we were talking about fictional characters whereas here we’re dealing with real life figures in Judy’s life so it’s a little more of a glaring issue in this case. The story stays pretty focused on Judy the entire time making everyone else a footnote in her final days which undermines how invested everyone else is in this movie. Zellweger is great but there are several other highlight performances including the aforementioned Darci Shaw, Finn Whittrock as Judy’s final husband Mickey Deans and Jessie Buckley as a fictional handler for Garland during her time in London. “Judy” is, first and foremost, a character driven drama but it would have been nice to see these real life figures in Judy’s life more effectively developed considering how big a role many of them played in her final year.
One interesting thing I noted about the movie is that it has an oddly uneven approach to subtlety. At times “Judy” feels pretty controlled in its attempts to address the harsher events of the late actresses life, but then other times it tries maybe too hard to be more than it needs to be specifically in regards to one specific segment that isn’t even based on real life events. There’s one part of the film where Judy goes to have dinner with a pair of gay fans which is inspired by Judy’s history as an LGBTQ ally. However, this entire scene feels…odd. On one hand it showcases how much Judy loved her fans and gives insight into her humanity and beliefs concerning social issues, but on the other it’s one of the few non-historic scenes which makes it feel more like an attempt at pandering to modern issues using Judy’s story as a springboard. Now don’t get me wrong, showcasing acceptance for homosexuality is not something I’m against. I’ve loved the inclusion of this theme in many films of the past. But in a film like this it just didn’t feel natural to the story for me when the rest of the film proved to be heavily inspired by real-life events.While I commend the film for being willing to address the struggles of the LGBTQ community there are bigger battles this movie was made to fight. It didn’t need the added message, although I can’t say it doesn’t handle it properly and the scene does provide more than just an LGBTQ message by capturing how being a celebrity can help someone change lives by providing them hope in a world where they feel like outcasts.
There are many moments that speak to the harsh truths of Judy’s fame, including the management, treatment and even possible sexual abuse at the hands of Louis Mayer through an uncomfortable scene straight out of the writings of Garland biographer Gerald Clarke. While “Judy” does tend to get caught up with it’s Oscar-worthy lead performance and tries too hard at times to earn relevance beyond its main story it also serves an important purpose of highlighting the damage and mistreatment done to a young star that bled into her life as an adult. In an era where the #MeToo movement thrives and there’s more awareness of sexual harassment as an epidemic in Hollywood “Judy” would feel appropriately timed without any added social commentary because of its honest examination of the poor treatment of one of the industry’s most celebrated super stars. This alone makes it an engaging watch along with the emotional power put into Zellweger’s performance which sells the pain and suffering Judy experienced in her final days as well as her pride for her craft that helped keep her going even through the harshest of times. In the end, even when it does too much, “Judy” accomplishes most if not all of what it sets out to do, at least from a narrative standpoint, whether that’s opening our eyes to the harsh realities of the industry and the value entertainment brings to the world and the entertainer while also delving deep into the Judy’s personal struggles.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a perfect movie, “Judy” has a lot to bring to the table. It’s star performance by Renee Zellweger is definitely its highlight even if it does overshadow the rest of the cast a bit too often and everything from the music and pacing to the emotional resonance and the costume design makes “Judy” an engaging viewing. Although it tends to pander a bit and try too hard to make the story of Garland’s final days more relevant to modern audiences, everything still feels like it has its purpose. However it’s when the movie takes a step back and focuses more on the tragic realities already available from Garland’s life is it shines the most. “Judy” might not be perfect, a far cry from the best film of 2019, but it is one of the year’s best biopics with a lot of great elements and enough sincerity and tragic honesty to overpower its relatively basic flaws.