There are movies that are great as cinema: examples of visual storytelling at its purest, most inventive and emotionally expressive.
Then there are movies that are great simply as containers for a performance: reminders that, for all the structural, technical and aesthetic elements that come into play in a film, it’s the stars we come to see.
“Judy” is just such a sturdy, dependable vehicle which, in this case, carries the precious cargo of Renée Zellweger in a dazzling portrayal of Judy Garland at the end of her life. Tough, vulnerable, resilient and wrecked, Zellweger’s Garland both leans into the myth — she even wears her “What Becomes a Legend Most?” mink in some sequences — and slyly subverts it, with moments of self-aware humor.
Zellweger doesn’t deliver an impersonation of Judy Garland as much as an interpretation, adjusting her own vocal register but never to the point of erasure or mimicry. The result is a relatively straightforward slice-of-life biopic, bogged down with flashbacks and backstage histrionics, that nonetheless offers an utterly transfixing glimpse at the art of screen performance writ gloriously, glamorously large.
“Judy,” which has been adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the play “End of the Rainbow,” chronicles Garland’s you-had-to-be-there engagement at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, where for five weeks in 1969 audiences were on the edge of their seats, either in rapturous attention to her songs or wondering if she’d make it onstage at all. As the film opens, we’re made privy to the reasons Garland took the gig: Broke, unemployable and uninsurable, she’s forced to leave her two children with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) while she tries to build a more stable home life. Deeply in debt to back taxes, she reluctantly agrees to leave the country for England, where she can make a stab at refilling the coffers.
It’s a coincidence that “Judy” takes place in 1969, which is also the same time period of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And like Tarantino’s film, this one seeks to honor the largely invisible labor and self-denial beneath the high gloss of celebrity. “I think maybe I was just hungry this whole time,” Zellweger’s Garland says wryly. It’s a throwaway line, but one that gets to the starving heart of a gifted artist who dared to dream of having her cake, and eating it too.