Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is another to add to the numerous list of films about musicians or singers. There was one last year that was a huge hit and an Oscar-winner, that of A Star Is Born (2018). That film, however, was a fictional film. It wasn’t a biographical film about a real person, or what’s known as a musical biopic. We got one such this year about Elton John called Rocketman (2019), but a lot of the musical biopics are ones about men. Hardly any exist that focus on women. There have been films where women were a part of the narrative like Walk the Line (2005). Other than that, there aren’t many musical biopics centering around or being led by women. The only ones that stick out in my mind are Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and La Vie en Rose (2007).
Like those aforementioned films, this film’s strength is in its central, female performance. Unlike those aforementioned films, that performance is really its only strength. There’s decent writing in that this film is an adaptation of a Broadway play by Peter Quilter. There’s decent supporting performances and the direction is fairly decent as well. I suppose I was just a little underwhelmed at the thing as a whole. Obviously, there are a lot of elements about this that are endemic to all musical biopics and that are predictable. It’s not to say that a film can’t still feel refreshing or be highly engaging, even with familiar elements, elements we’ve seen in films like Lady Sings the Blues and Rocketman. Being the most recent example, Rocketman was able to make those familiar elements feel lively or new. This one doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it does enchant as a vehicle for its main actress.
Renée Zellweger (Chicago and Bridget Jones’s Diary) stars as Judy Garland, the legendary and iconic actress and singer who is considered one of the greatest female entertainers of all-time, certainly of the early 20th century. She began as a child star and acted for decades. She won an Academy Award. She was even the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Unfortunately, she died of a drug overdose in 1969 at the age of 47. Her death was only a few months after her last regular gig, which was a headlining run in a fancy nightclub in London called The Talk of the Town, now called the Hippodrome.
What led to her going to London is a lot of financial issues and even a custody battle with her ex-husband over her two youngest children. She’s one of the most famous women on Earth but she’s in effect homeless. She’s deep in debt and, as flashbacks to her childhood reveal why, she has an addiction to pills. The film does a great job of depicting the struggle she had as a young actress with her job responsibilities, which were highly demanding and controlling of how she looked and what she ate, as well as almost everything else she did. It was a struggle because she didn’t feel free as a young woman to be herself or do what she wanted. Her juggling of her career and her personal life is one that’s all too common for women, particularly those that are mothers. Zellweger’s face and body convey that struggle so well.
There are a good crop of supporting actors around Zellweger like Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl and Taboo) who plays Rosalyn, the talent manager or talent wrangler who’s responsible for making sure Judy is kept on schedule and properly cared so that she can be on stage every night or every weekend or whenever the schedule was. There’s also Finn Wittrock (American Crime Story and American Horror Story) who plays Mickey Deans, a nightclub manager and piano player who becomes a love interest for Judy in a May-December romance. They’re all interesting, but they all become a blur or truly just background any and every time Zellweger is in frame.
None of that is more evident than when Judy is on stage in front of an audience. Zellweger does what a lot of great actors embodying the role of great singers do. She sings herself. Zellweger does truly embody Judy Garland and belts out the various songs with great precision and range. She commands the stage and the screen completely in those moments. What’s interesting is that director Rupert Goold builds up to the moment where Zellweger first performs on stage as Judy in a meta-commentary way.
Even though Zellweger was in the musical Chicago for which she was nominated for an Oscar, it remains a question if she can compare to the incomparable Garland. The filmmaking, thus is very anxious, as we doubt if Zellweger in real-life and as the character would be able to measure up to Garland, the icon and legend. The anxiety is shattered or melted away once Zellweger opens her mouth and starts to sing. It’s all but eliminated when the first musical number ends. The next question is if she can keep it up over and over. It might be a spoiler to say, but Zellweger does keep it up and she is incredible.
It was also a nice nod to gay men of a certain age to acknowledge why Garland is such an icon to gay men. After a London performance, we see Judy run into a same-sex male couple who invite her to join them for dinner. The momentum of the movie then stops in a good way to deal with the homophobia in England and Garland being a symbol for them. It’s no doubt in that regard as to why the show-stopper is Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a more than symbolic song.
If one likes this film or this kind of material, one should also check out the Emmy-winning Michelle Williams in the FX series Fosse/Verdon. Williams plays Gwen Verdon, an actress and singer who was nowhere near as famous as Judy Garland but the issues addressed in that FX series are very similar to the issues here, but more effectively done and more emotionally hard-hitting.
Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, some strong language and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.