“I’m only ‘Judy Garland’ for an hour a night, the rest of the time I’m just part of a family” states a mournful Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) during an unnecessarily probing TV interview. It sets out Judy’s most powerful theme – the commodification of human beings in the quest for entertainment – neatly, and the defeated anguish with which it’s said feels additionally potent coming from Zellweger, another movie star who the press has recently forgotten is a real person. More a vehicle for a sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated lead performance than a movie that stands on its own merits, Judy shines when its focus is tightest on its star.
Set mostly in 1968 London, Judy recalls last year’s Stan and Ollie as its former global superstar lead character takes on a UK tour in the twilight of her career. This time, though, there’s a little more glamour, Judy selling out show after show; the danger isn’t in the work being unsuccessful, but in Judy being well and sober enough night after night to perform at all. In her corner are her tour manager Rosalyn (a criminally underused Jessie Buckley) and fourth husband Mickey (Finn Wittrock in full Noo Yawk mode), but the battle is often a losing one.
When she does get up on stage though, the results can be magical. Zellweger does a phenomenal job with the transitions between the drunken, jittery offstage Judy and the legendary entertainer Judy Garland. Singing for an audience comes as naturally to Judy as breathing, and Zellweger’s performance lets us see the freedom and life that these concerts breathe back into her. It’s always hugely impressive, and sometimes even genuinely moving, and director Rupert Goold really finds a spark whenever the singing starts. Outside of these scenes though, Judy hits a lot of very generic biopic beats – it’s sentimental even by this genre’s standards, especially with its annoyingly corny finale – and the supporting cast make little to no impression.
Admirably, though, Tom Edge’s script doesn’t sugarcoat the monstrous abuse heaped upon child stars by Hollywood when it flashes back to Judy’s young moviemaking years. Agonisingly long days, diet pills instead of lunch, hatchet faced managers, and sexual harassment add up to a distressing portrait of lost youth, and Zellweger’s eyes have these years of damaged melancholy in them. It’s a real movie star showcase, one that is worthy of the awards attention it has been pre-ordained for.