If you've ever watched "The Wizard of Oz," you know who Judy Garland is. You may not know how hard the woman's life was, though, which is the theme of the bio-pic "Judy." I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio:
Most of us know Judy Garland from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the then-16-year-old starred as Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale. That’s when Garland sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the tune that would become ever associated with her.
It’s fitting, then, that director Rupert Goold – in adapting Peter Quilter’s stage play “End of the Rainbow” – should begin his film, simply titled “Judy,” on the set of “Oz” with a scene featuring fabled MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer confronting young Garland as a father would a recalcitrant child.
The difference, of course, is that Mayer is not a kindly father but a consummate businessman protecting his investment. And Garland is not so much recalcitrant as she is merely tired and hungry, a case the movie makes – following the popular version of Garland’s real-life story – that she was fed drugs to keep her working long hours and denied food to keep her looking young and slim.
That scene sets the tone for “Judy,” which documents the series of London comeback concerts that Garland – then in financial trouble, separated from her two younger children Lorna and Joey Luft, and accompanied by her scheming fifth husband Mickey Deans – performed in 1969. Concerts, by the way, that at times showed the skilled performer that Garland had once been, but at other times devolved into spectacles where she would show up an hour late, would abuse the audience and would be abused in turn.
In between the London shows, Goold’s film delivers flashbacks – of Garland and the manipulative Mayer, of Garland and her former husband Sid Luft, of the then-44-year-old Garland meeting the 32-year-old Deans at a party held by her daughter Liza Minnelli, of Garland having a late dinner with two gay fans … and so on.
Some of all this is based in fact – Garland was dependent on drugs, she was in her final years deeply in debt and basically homeless, she did perform in London to mixed reviews, and she did marry Deans. But much of it, too, has been changed for dramatic effect, which is to be expected: biopics are all too willing to tell a good story at the expense of truth.
Yet do any of these changes really matter? Unlike some other dramatic retellings, which change history completely, “Judy” adheres to the basic outline – even though a final sequence is a clear, if effective, attempt at causing audience member to reach for a collective hanky.
The biggest surprise of “Judy” is how well both actresses cast as Garland (Darci Shaw plays the young version) pull off a difficult part: Renée Zellweger, best known for starring in such rom-coms as “Jerry Maguire” and the “Bridget Jones” films, is virtually unrecognizable. And as Taron Egerton did in the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” Zellweger even sings, her rendition of the Garland standards being aided by the fact that – in her late 40s – Garland didn’t possess the powerful voice she once had.
The result is a moving study of a talented performer who never found the love she so clearly craved.