Saturday 14 March 2020

Film Review: Judy, over the rainbow




If Judy had been about a fictional film-star-singer, it might have been a good film. Vacuous at its core, maybe, and not particularly memorable, but a good film.

It starts off in 1939, with a then-16-year-old Judy auditioning for The Wizard of Oz. Studio boss Louis Mayer points out, in excruciating detail, her limitations when it comes to attractiveness, and asks if she has it in her to overcome them to play one of literature’s most iconic roles.

It cuts forward to 1969, where a near-bankrupt Judy, debilitated by drink and drugs, presumably brought on by the inferiority complex engendered by the early studio years, is forced to accept a 5-week residency in London to perform a series of concerts if she wants any hope of making enough money to live on and keep her children.

Most of the film is then shown in that 1969 era, as Judy struggles to deal with addiction and co-dependency, with a few flashbacks to the shooting of The Wizard of Oz. As such, it becomes a chronicle of rather pathetic failure, as the fading once-beloved film star runs down an abyss driven by bad decisions, drink and drugs. The flashbacks try to show her as being constantly put upon by the studio and seems to hold them—and at a personal level, Mayer—responsible for Judy’s present condition while at the same time implying that she peaked as the rosy-cheeked Dorothy. 

A good enough film, of the “suffering-porn” variety. Take your three stars and be forgotten, fated to the Netflix recommendation queue for those who like ‘films with strong female leads’.

But that’s not what Judy is, is it?

It’s not about a fictional character. It’s about Judy. It’s about Judy-fuckin’-Garland.

Judy-fuckin’-Garland was born Frances Gumm in a family of vaudeville entertainers just as vaudeville was going out of fashion. She transitioned to film at 13 following a screen test, and was signed with MGM on a long-term contract. That was not remotely ordinary; thirteen is too old for a ‘child’ star, and too young for a regular actress. And yes, while she was certainly pretty, this was at a time when MGM’s other contract stars were Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner and Greta Garbo—women whose beauty was of the spectacular, unforgettable kind. The kind that would outshine anyone not named Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner (MGM’s next generation of signings).

L-R, Hedy Lamar, Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor

But Judy Garland was signed anyway.

Judy, the film, touches upon one reason for it in its opening scene—Mayer points out she has a great voice. Well, that vastly undersells it. Judy Garland had once-in-a-generation vocals. In her teens, she could belt a full-throated melody with admirable control, and she did it in a voice that was bigListening to Judy Garland is to be mesmerized by possibilities; there seems to be a constant, imminent sense of danger about it; like sitting in a racing Ferrari. Even at 40 km/h, the car’s engine hums with the prospect of topping 250 km/h without breaking a sweat, and that’s what Garland’s voice is like—she doesn’t sing epic songs; songs become epic because she sings them. 

What the film fails to mention is that she could dance, as she did, with Fred Astaire and, more often, Gene Kelley, and she could act the full range from frothy comedies to overpowering drama. 

And with all that, I’m sure, was a healthy dose of ambition. Because with all the 18-hour workdays and drugs that had become a part of studio life, we need to remember that this relatively-ordinary-looking girl, who worked in an era alongside the most beautiful women in the world, more than held her own. 

For that brings us to another misconception that Judy would foist upon us—that she was the ­girl from The Wizard of Oz and that pretty much defined her career. In reality, while that may be the film one most closely identifies with her now, after it has been shown to most of white America in their formative years, remember that this was far from the case back then. In fact, The Wizard of Oz lost money for MGM, only recouping it on re-release in 1949 and then, of course, going into super-profits when it became a TV staple (CBS paid MGM $225,000 for every time they broadcast it—in the fifties). Judy Garland made her reputation basis a string of hits as a young woman throughout the forties, parlaying her voice and dancing and acting to become one of Hollywood’s most reliable box-office draws. She had become difficult to work with—drugs and depression took their toll, and multiple suicide attempts preceded the last one—and that meant delayed productions and re-shoots, but she was still MGM’s biggest star. 

We don’t see much of that in Judy. We don’t see what made her an icon, we are just told it, through expository dialogue that often falls flat, and yes, that means the film manages, despite being a visual medium, to fall into the trap of telling, and not showing. In trying to put forth a story of a ‘fall from the heights’, Judy emphatically fails to capture just how dizzyingly high those heights were, and the grit and hard work and talent that took its protagonist there. 

That’s where Rene Zellweger’s singing voice doesn’t help either.

Let me be fair—Zellweger does a brilliant job of replicating Garland’s expressions and mannerisms, not only is the resemblance strong, but the portrayal seems to be spot-on…until she sings. 

For some reason (okay, I kind of know the reason, but that’s a whole different discussion), Hollywood does not let its actresses get playbacks, and as a result, we have Rene Zellweger, a non-singer, provide the soundtrack for one of the top singing stars of the industry. Imagine a Lata Mangeshkar biopic, starring Kangana Ranaut, where she has to sing in her own voice. It’s not that Zellweger can’t hold a note; she can sing, but she doesn’t sound like someone who once had a voice that comfortably enthralled Carnegie Hall, that seemed to glow with warmth and bristle with pain, even before those things were really a part of her life. 

But if nothing else, Judy will hopefully revive interest in the character it purports to portray, and if in doing so, it drives some of its viewers to check out A Star is Born (1954), Ziegfield Girl, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Summer Stock and so on, it will have accomplished a great deal of good. And I dare say they would get a much better idea of the character from seeing her perform.

And yeah, if you haven't, go watch The Wizard of Oz. If you don't cry during 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' on your second viewing (because of course there will be a second viewing), you may be dead already.


  1. Fantastic Read. Thanks.

  2. Great review. You told me.what else I needed to know after I saw and liked Judy.