The average college student most likely has a limited relationship with Judy Garland (“The Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “A Star Is Born”), although her work and music still permeates the culture today. After all, her death in 1969 precedes the births of most college-aged students by some 25-30 years. To those in the generation that was actually alive during Garland’s career, one cannot understate how wildly beloved the legendary performer was.
As such, the new biopic “Judy” proves a wonderful glimpse into the life and career of a long-lost American icon, despite often presenting an often flawed, cheesy representation. Perhaps the most valuable feat of this film, however, is the remarkable, transformative performance from Renée Zellweger (“Chicago,” “Cold Mountain”) in the lead role.
Where films in the history and biography genres have a propensity to span decades of events and relationships needlessly, “Judy” dances around these beats with grace. From director Rupert Goold (“True Story”) and writer Tom Edge (“The Crown”), the play-to-screen adaptation portrays the actress and singer in two timelines: one on the cusp of stardom, and another just months before her untimely death at the age of 47 — with the latter taking precedence. The structure allows for allusions to Garland’s work, without compromising the film’s quality with egregious fan-service and without sacrificing the insights of critical character development.
During the earlier timeline, the young, wide-eyed Judy — played by relative newcomer Darci Shaw “The Bay” — is subjected to abusive, controlling behavior from entertainment executives. Nothing about her warrants nor justifies the criticism she receives, but the actress endures nonetheless because of her career aspirations. About three decades later, an alcohol and drug-dependent Judy struggles to maintain her family’s stability while her substance-abuse issues torpedo her career and personal finances.
Sometimes, playing with multiple timelines leads a story toward an unfocused mess. Here, however, the script and direction navigate these deftly, using each one to complement the other. Where substance-abuse on the screen often proves difficult to endure for viewers, those representations in “Judy” are offset by her troubled upbringing, thereby inducing empathy rather than frustration.
Moreover, the singer’s earnest ambition rationalizes why she continues to perform despite the problems that show business brings her. This approach highlights the woman behind the work, as opposed to rapid-firing the greatest hits like many other biopics do.
Critical to unlocking the magic of Judy Garland and the effectiveness of the film is Renée Zellweger. Discussing an actor’s transformation generally leans toward cliché, but there may not be a better description for the extent of Zellweger’s greatness in this movie. The one-time Oscar-winning actress captures the frustrations and demons of the late-stage star without losing her characteristic class and charisma.
Despite the terrific representation of Judy Garland, however, “Judy” is a far from perfect film. The visual stylizations rarely turn heads. Every character other than Zellweger’s Judy is more caricature of plot function than completely realized human being. Some scenes — most often those in which Judy is subjected to criticism — feel so forcefully rendered that they become unrealistic despite the fact that they did, indeed, happen in reality. Most alarming and abrasive of all, though, is the final scene that oozes with corniness to such a degree that it very nearly ruins the entire film retroactively.
Yet the flaws, although difficult to endure in the short-term, prove inconsequential to one’s lasting takeaways from the biopic. What “Judy” does well is exactly what Goold and Edge sought. The biographical film successfully develops insight into the tumultuous life of its titular character and, likewise, gives one pause before exercising judgment toward troubled stars.
More importantly, however, “Judy” connects a bygone artist to younger generations, allowing them to share in the goosebump-inducing magic when she wistfully sings, “Somewhere over the rainbow.”