Judy

Once you've heard the music of Judy Garland it's impossible to forget her voice. Whether on stage or on screen, she enraptured generations with her one-of-a-kind vocal performances, from her early years as a movie star during Hollywood's Golden Age to her final days before her untimely death in 1969. That so much of her legacy as an artist is tied to the trauma and sadness of her personal life is perhaps inescapable, but the greatest strength of Rupert Goold's excellent biopic Judy is that the filmmakers are able to capture both the genius and tragedy of its subject without falling victim to so many cliches similar films do.

Starring an absolutely astonishing Renee Zellweger in the title role, Judy is an adaptation of Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow and focuses acutely on the later years of the world-renowned singer as she performs what would be the final series of concerts of her career in London during the winter of 1968. But to understand Garland in her latter years one must know the circumstances of her early life, as the film shows in key flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative. Plucked from obscurity by the MGM studios when she was still only a child, Judy's youth was robbed of her by awful movie execs who exploited the young star while constantly belittling her. Drugs which frequently replaced meals were handed out day and night, while a grueling schedule of performance was constantly enforced. After enduring so much abuse it was only a forgone conclusion her personal life as an adult would prove so troubled, plagued as it was with substance abuse, numerous failed marriages, protracted custody battles over children, and health problems both physical and mental.

It's remarkable to think that despite so much pain Judy Garland was still able to inspire so much happiness in others, and the best moments of the film detail how she was able to rise above so many of her personal demons and achieve greatness even when she was seemingly at her lowest. One fantastic scene see's Judy rushed to the stage late and hungover on opening night, but when she takes to the mic she leaves the audience wowed with her rendition of By Myself. Zellweger completely owns the role of Garland, not only in how she's able to effectively transform physically into the late star right down to certain mannerisms, but in how she's able to project the rough and vulnerable soul of Judy in moments of both hurt and happiness. The ensemble cast is similarly strong, featuring impressive supporting turns from Fitt Wittrock as her ambitious, slick talking young lover Mickey Deans, Jessie Buckley as her overworked handler Rosalyn Wilder, and Rufus Sewell as ex-husband Sidney Luft, who (not without reason) insists their two young children are better off in his care. The aforementioned flashbacks also feature a wonderful Darci Shaw as the teenage Judy Garland, who effectively conveys the pain and frustration the vulnerable young woman felt being trapped in a harsh world she couldn't escape from.

With a runtime of 118 minutes Judy doesn't overstay its welcome as Tom Edge's economic screenplay does a good job of balancing the various tonal shifts inherent in Judy's story. Composer Gabriel Yard's moving original score nicely compliments the unsurprisingly terrific soundtrack, while Ole Bratt Birkeland's first-rate cinematography is not too over-indulgent in camera movements and compositions that it draws attention to itself at the expense of the film's emotions. A brief scene in which Garland befriends a gay couple who have endured the prejudices of a less-enlightened time after one of her performances is maybe a little trite, but it nonetheless does a good job of conveying the importance that Garland held to the gay community at a time when they had next to zero visibility in mainstream culture. When Garland sang of a place "Where troubles melt like lemon drops" in the now-immortal song "Over the Rainbow", who more than tortured and disenfranchised gay men could empathize with the troubles she spoke of?

Judy ultimately stands as a heartfelt and loving tribute to a rebellious and courageously independent spirit, one that I would like to believe Judy herself would also have approved of.