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Rupert Goold's Judy is the latest in a series of movies featuring actors shifting into the skins of other great performers. We’ve recently seen Rami Malek do it in Bohemian Rhapsody, Taron Egerton do it in Rocketman, and even some famous character cameos in the alternate-reality film Yesterday. That creates a high standard for Renee Zellweger to meet starring in a swinging sixties story about the final and fated months in the life of popular actress and singer Judy Garland.
Judy is a little bit different than other movies in the trend, however. Renee Zellweger’s Garland is living in the era of rock ‘n’ roll by the time the film kicks off, but she’s not representing rock 'n' roll. She’s been broken by a bygone era of movie-making and performing, tarnished by drugs, alcohol and too little food — and yet somehow her personality hasn’t dulled one bit.
Despite the fact Judy follows Zellweger’s Judy Garland during a tumultuous period in the singer’s life – through a short-lived marriage, a custody battle and a series of concerts in London in 1969 in which Garland suffered terrible stage fright – the famous voice from The Wizard of Oz and other classics is still a mesmerizing character, played to perfection by the star.
Thanks to its subject and the specific moment in time Tom Edge’s screenplay (and previously Peter Quilter's musical drama) hones in on, Judy does something a lot of movies about people going through tumult are not capable of achieving. Judy is a maddening mess, but she’s also often likable.
Yes, she’s a woman who takes her kids (Bella Ramsey, Lewin Lloyd) on the road with her and doesn’t give them a proper home – but they love her and she’s trying.
She’s a woman who can’t talk with her ex (Rufus Sewell) without having a drink or four to take off the edge —but she still holds a certain appeal to people she often doesn’t treat well.
She’s a woman who sometimes can barely get it together enough to perform onstage – but she still remains captivating. (And Zellweger is doing the singing to boot!)
In between these botched efforts and personal failures, Zellweger’s take on Judy Garland is charming, delightful, broken, funny, in-the-moment, and unstoppable. She never quits trying to make the right decision, even when she’s in the middle of making a bad one. I don’t know if she was this delightful in real life, but for a movie that’s as much to take in as Judy is, I found myself surprised at how much sympathy I was able to muster for the doomed star.
The plot of a film typically deserves more discussion, this one focusing on Garland during her final Talk of the Town nightclub shows in 1969, but there isn’t much of it here. While Rufus Sewell, Wild Rose actress Jessie Buckley (who plays the woman looking after the actress and singer), and Andy Nyman (who plays Garland superfan Dan) get to chew some scenes with Zellweger and hold their own in individual moments during the film, this project is first and foremost a one-woman show.
Here in the States, director Rupert Goold may only be known for directing the little-seen James Franco movie True Story or an episode of The Hollow Crown. There's not a ton in this movie to compare to those, but taken on its own, this film is very neat and tidy. Any character who briefly sashays into Judy’s drug-tinted life is brought in for a reason, and is given closure by the time the credits roll. Even with its well-known story, the number of personalities introduced into it could have created a mess, and narratively manages them all.
Ultimately, whether or not Judy deeply resonates with you, it will likely make an indelible impression in regards to your perception of a legend: Once, as a young girl, Judy Garland was handed the role of Dorothy and told to tap her sequined red shoes together three times, reciting “There’s no place like home.” The only thing is, the only home she ever really embraced was the stage, and it wasn’t always kind to her.