“I used to have ambitions,” says 40-something Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger), “but they gave me headaches.” At a boozy, late-night party, she’s talking to young Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), whom she has just met, after being evicted — with her two children — from a New York hotel suite. Her account was in arrears and she has neither work nor money. “You play anything,” asks Mickey, “or you just sing?” “Just sing,” Judy says. That’s the setup for “Judy,” a show-business bio-pic of the end of Garland’s life, when she sang for five weeks at an upscale London supper-club.
Can Judy keep her London engagement despite missed performances, collapses and on-stage breakdowns? Does Mickey Deans become husband No. 5? Will you ever forget “The Wizard of Oz”? I won’t.
In the title role, Renee Zellweger owns this film, but as critic Guy Lodge writes, it’s hers through “empathy rather than mere imitation.” Zellweger sings show-stopping numbers — “I’ll Go My Way by Myself,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Trolley Song,” and of course, “Over the Rainbow” — not as Garland sang them, but as Zellweger-honoring-Garland sings them. It’s an affectionate and award-worthy performance. In flashbacks, Darci Shaw is touching as 16-year-old Judy on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
Others in the cast include Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft, ex-husband and custody-battling father of Judy’s young children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd). Michael Gambon is Bernard Delfont, owner of London’s “Talk of the Town” nightclub where Judy performs — erratically — for five weeks. Jessie Buckley, employed by Delfont, is Judy’s sympathetic handler in London. To her, Judy says, “Every time I cut a cake, I find myself married to some jerk.” She’s thinking about Mickey Deans, Sidney Luft and the others. John Dagleish is pianist Lonnie Donegan. Gemma-Leah Devereux is Liza Minelli.
“Judy” is a backstage, musical drama, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge. It’s based on Peter Quilter’s play, “End of the Rainbow.” The focus is London and Garland’s troubled nightly concerts at Talk of the Town, but flashbacks to her mistreatment at MGM where she was given amphetamines at breakfast, barbiturates at night and, as adult Judy remembers, “Chicken soup for a year at lunch so I’d be slim enough to play Dorothy in the movies,” help us understand the origins of her addictions and personal demons. Judy was, the movie tells us, robbed of her childhood.
Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, strong language and smoking, “Judy” runs 118 minutes. Take a hanky when you see “Judy.”
“Judy” Garland’s last year,
Pills and booze brought her low;
Zellweger brings a tear —
Where did the rainbow go?