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First run Theater cinema

Renée Zellweger (Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones's Diary, Chicago) returns to the big screen, after a six-year hiatus from acting, transformed into the tragic Hollywood legend and icon Judy Garland during the final year of her short life. Based on the stage play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, Judy follows Garland during her final stage tour, a five-week run of sell-out concerts in London, as she struggles with stage fright, depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, homelessness, the failure of her marriages, and the loss of custody of her young children. To call the movie a downer is an understatement, but then pretty much any film about Garland would have to be. Yet even by the abysmally low standers of Hollywood biopics, Judy is an awful movie with nothing, including Zellweger’s fine performance, to warrant seeing it. 

I am unfamiliar with the play this is based on, but it would seem that, like this film, it’s primarily designed to showcase a tour da force performance by an actress. All we really learn about Judy Garland was what a mess she was at the end of her days. As to fleshing out the details of the fascinating life she led, director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge give us nothing except a few badly written flashbacks to Garland’s childhood under contract to Louis B. Mayer, dating Mickey Rooney, and being force-fed speed and other narcotics by her studio minders. Garland is portrayed in these scenes by newcomer Darci Shaw, who plays young Judy like a deer in headlights and bears little resemblance to either Garland or Zellweger.

I don’t know if these flashbacks are part of the stage version, but they represent the greatest failure of this picture: it doesn’t appear to know what audience it’s made for—other than people who want to see Zellweger disappear completely into a role, which she doesn’t quite accomplish, but with this script it’s hard to imagine how anyone could.  Most of the picture seems aimed at viewers who are well acquainted with all the details about Garland’s life. Indeed there is a substantial population of devoted theater mavens and movie freaks who know Garland’s life story inside and out. But the makers of this movie clearly believe viewers need some backstory about their protagonist, so we’re given these generically trite expository scenes of young Judy at MGM.

But any audiences who need to be told that Judy Garland was the star of The Wizard of Oz (1939), and that as a young performer she was put under tremendous pressure by her studio to maintain an impossibly high standard and work ethic—fueled by a steady diet of uppers, downers, and self-doubt about her looks, her weight, her talent, etc.—also need to be told wealth of a biographical information to appreciate who this person is when we meet her in this movie. If the film is meant as a character study of a once great performer clinging to their last strands of life and stardom, then there are far more creative ways to give us insight into her backstory than these clumsy flashbacks.

Zellweger does her own singing in this film, which will probably ensure she gets an Oscar nomination. I’m frustrated with the perceived requirement these days that an actor playing a famous singer must do their own singing or they’ve somehow not done their job. Why is this so important? For one thing, modern studio techniques mean that even actors who can barely carry a tune can be sweetened into giving decent a vocal performance, but with all that digital enhancement, why not just have them lip-sync to the real recordings of the person they are emulating?  Certainly there are many biopics that are elevated by their leads performing their own vocals, but I would argue there are just as many where this detracts from the what a film is trying to convey—Judy as a prime example of the later. Zellweger’s singing may be great, and she is able to express much of the internal strife her character is experiencing at the time of the performance, but she doesn’t come close to capturing the singular vocal qualities of Judy Garland. Therefore, nothing about this film shows us why we should care about the woman at its center; what made her one of a kind, and what was truly tragic about her final year.

Twitter Capsule:
Even by the abysmally low standards of the Hollywood biopic, this star vehicle about Garland's final year fails across the board. Zellweger meets the now de facto requirement of performing her own singing, but this too is a detriment despite her fine performance.

Directed by Rupert Goold
Produced by David Livingstone

Screenplay by Tom Edge
Based on the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter

With: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Michael Gambon, Bella Ramsey, Andy Nyman, Gaia Weiss, Royce Pierreson, Arthur McBain, John Dagleish, Gemma-Leah Devereux, and Darci Shaw

Cinematography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Editing: Melanie Oliver
Music: Gabriel Yared

Runtime: 118 min
Release Date: 04 October 2019