The new biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland, does a quite a number of things right in its well-established genre. It takes us behind the scenes of the beloved icon, looking at her inner demons, while being reminded why she was, at one point, the definition of a star. That's not to say it doesn't follow too closely in biopic motifs; the wheel isn't reinvented. And frankly, it doesn't have to. Zellweger as Garland more than makes up for any clichés in the narrative, all leading to an exuberant and heart-wrenching finale worthy of Garland's legacy.
Taking place in the last years of her life, Judy begins with Garland on stage with her two young kids in 1968, performing to make a living. She's down and nearly out; her years as 'trouble' on film sets has kept her from making any sort of comeback. Living from hotel to hotel has left her broke, and now she's about to lose custody of her kids to her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). The only way for her to make money, enough for her to afford lawyers for a custody battle and for her to make a home for her and her kids, is to go to London for a series of concerts. She's big overseas, bigger than in the States, so a run of shows in the UK would keep her from bouncing from house party to house party, couch-surfing until an untimely end. It's a dark time in her life, and the film doesn't stray away from that. Based on the Broadway play End of the Rainbow, and adapted for the screen by Tom Edge, Judy plays like a tragedy. It's not a complete downward spiral, as there are moments of hope throughout, but if you know anything about Garland's real life fall from stardom and death, you know you're in for an emotional last act for the legendary woman.
Painting an clearer picture of her in '68, the film jumps back in time to a young Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz, and her time as a child star, following the orders of her handlers who want to build a superstar from the ground up. These scenes, with Darci Shaw playing the young Garland, all take place on a soundstage, showing the artifice of celebrity life. We see her being told not to take a bite of a hamburger while on a staged date, the she's forbidden from jumping into the pool at her own birthday pool party. These flashbacks are all anchored by a powerful film producer lumbering in the shadows, who manipulates the young, naive Garland into being just another cog in the studio system. As the film jumps back to the older Garland, struggling with depression and substance abuse, it's made all too apparent what pushed her to escape from herself.
During her London performances at the Talk of the Town, Garland meets people who end up being an important part of her final years; she marries her fifth husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), and she befriends her personal assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), each being instrumental in her life. There's even a moment when Garland, after a late night performance, meets a gay couple outside of the theater. They offer to cook her dinner and talk about how important she is to them, speaking about how one of the men was imprisoned for "indecency." Many moments and characters in Judy have a shoehorned-in feeling. But the payoff, thankfully, comes from the performance from Zellweger, who does all her own singing in the film and embodies the essence of Garland seemingly effortlessly. Director Rupert Goold has a history of theater directing and he's skillful in executing the stage performances of Garland, ever careful in letting Zellweger take the spotlight.
Standard biopic issues aside, Judy will make you fall in love with Judy Garland if you haven't already, with the film being ultimately a success due to a career-best performance by Renée Zellweger. With musical biopics all the rage, Judy deserves to be in the conversation as one to see.