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Non-Review Review: Judy

Judy is set primarily against the backdrop of Judy Garland’s time performing in London in the late sixties within the six months leading to her death.

As such, it’s no surprise that the film features more than a few sequences of the protagonist taking to the stage and performing to the sold out crowds. In fact, there are very few surprises in Judy at all. The film hits most of its marks and delivers pretty much everything that is expected of it. After all, what would be the point of a Judy Garland biography that didn’t include renditions of old favourites like Somewhere Over the Rainbow or even The Trolley Song? The film’s framing device allows director Rupert Goold to fold these classics in without having to embrace the musical sensibilities of something like Rocketman.

Let’s Judge Judy.

The most revealing and indicative of the performances peppered through the film is not the one where Garland falls to pieces, nor the one where she makes a triumphant return and pours her heart out to the audience. (Naturally, the film hits both of those marks.) The most compelling of these sing-on-stage sequences is the first. Having arrived in London, Garland has refused to rehearse. As opening night approaches, she sits in her bathroom drinking. She is micromanaged and guided to the stage, thrown out in front of the first crowd. She is palpably nervous. The audience is anxious. It could all fall apart.

And it… goes okay. It isn’t the best night ever, nor the worst. Garland’s voice cracks a little even when she finds the right tempo, her movements are slightly robotic rather than spontaneous or energised. However, despite these complaints, everything holds together long enough for Judy to finish the set. The crowd gets what they paid for, and Garland delivers what she promised. It plays almost as a microcosm of Judy as a whole.

A familiar song.

That first performance is one of the most effective sequences in the film, for two related-but-only-slightly-contradictory reasons. The first is that it very narrowly eschews the familiar template of the standard biopic. Given how much the sequence seemed to be pointing towards a catastrophic outcome, and given the standard arc of these kinds of stories that tend to subject their protagonists to brutal public humiliation before offering some late redemption, the audience might expect some blood to be shed. “I’m afraid the critics will review opening night,” Judy is warned early in the film, a not-so-veiled threat.

The fact that Garland performs well enough to appease the audience offers a very minor subversion of this familiar set-up. That is welcome of itself. After all, this is the reality of celebrity implosions like those that experienced by Judy Garland. As various characters (including Judy herself) acknowledge, she is unreliable and unmanageable in the long-term. However, she also has a life-time of experience and can still work. The tragedy of Garland was that she was still just about functional enough that she could be exploited and packaged, even as she was falling to pieces.

Whatever Zells.

That short scene captures the push-and-pull of the celebrity collapse. It is very clear that Judy is not in a healthy or happy place, but it is also very clear that at least some of her issues are rooted in the fact that she has been groomed and trained to handle this sort of engagement without batting an eye. In a way, Judy’s functional, satisfying, hollow performance in front of an eager and delighted audience is almost as haunting and unsettling as any melodramatic on-stage meltdown. It is horrifying that the damage done to Garland has shaped her so fundamentally that she has almost been rendered a robot.

Of course, Judy cannot resist the familiar arc entirely. That threat of melodramatic on-stage meltdown dangles over the run-time of the film, and inevitably falls as the script rushes towards its climax. In the context of that awkward first performance, the catastrophe is only postponed rather than completely averted. That said, the other reason that the first on-stage sequence works so well is because it speaks very plainly and effectively to Judy as a film. Like its protagonist, Judy is professional enough that it can hit its marks. The film knows the score well enough to land the notes.

Everybody needs a hubby.

Judy is paint-by-numbers as biopics go. As you might expect, that paint is most often an emerald green. The film’s central thematic observation is that Garland found herself trapped on the other side of the rainbow. This is most bluntly stated in the prologue, in which Louis B. Meyer walks Garland down the yellow brick road on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Garland admits that she wants a normal life, to experience the simple pleasures that her audience take for granted. Meyer is presented as a sinister twist on the Wizard, the huckster who can keep Garland trapped in fantasy or return her to the mortal world.

It is in that opening sequence that Goold’s direction is most effective. Judy isn’t as effective or evocative as Stan and Ollie, but it shares a same reverence for classic Hollywood. As Meyer and Garland walk down the yellow brick road, Goold’s camera moves like the camera in that iconic arrival scene in The Wizard of Oz. It moves up and glides over the set, losing the actor for a moment as it tries to take in the majesty of the production design, before the cast eventually catch up to it.  When they do, Judy cannily uses the camera as a gateway; staring out of the screen, Meyer offers to banish Garland into the audience.

Gale force.

Naturally, Garland chooses to stay in fantasy world. Nothing in the rest of the film is as ambitious or evocative as that opening scene, but the film reinforces Garland’s choice by constantly lighting her adult self in shades of green. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and Kave Quinn’s production design often threaten to smother Garland in hues of turquoise. It’s a little heavy-handed and obvious, but Judy is not a subtle film. Tom’s Edge’s screenplay repeatedly flashes back to staged photo shoots and birthday parties to underscore just how illusory Garland’s childhood really was.

To be fair, this approach works well enough. Judy is never particularly ambiguous or nuanced in its meditations upon the title character. Just like Judy knows what the diners want from her night after night, the film knows exactly what the audience wants from a story of this tragic and lost figure. There is a comfort in these familiar rhythms, just like the familiar leitmotifs that drift into and out of Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack. There is a recurring sense that the audience has seen and heard all of this before, but that isn’t inherently a bad thing. The film affords its audience the security and stability that Garland herself wanted so much.

Biopic of the litter.

This yellow brick road takes all the turns and stops that one might expect. The plot is a checklist of celebrity biography tropes: there is familial separation; there is substance abuse; there is a recurring sense that the childhood star at the centre of the film never really grew up; there is a promising romance that inevitably falls apart, as the protagonist comes to terms with an arc that is incredibly obvious from the outset. Of course, a lot of this is try to Judy Garland’s life, but the audience would recognise the pattern even if she had never existed.

Even some of the individual scenes feel overly familiar. There an extended sequence of Garland going out into the world to mingle with ordinary people, recalling similar beats in films like Darkest Hour or Diana. There is also the requisite television interview, as the handheld camera presses in tight on Garland’s face as she is asked about her “troubled” past and she awkwardly asserts, “I just want what everybody else has.” It doesn’t matter that sixties television interviews never looked or felt like that, it represents a chance for the movie to lay out its themes for its subject, and to hold the camera on Renée Zellweger’s face.

Tuning it all out.

None of this is a serious problem in the context of what Judy is trying to do.. After all, there is a reason why these tropes are so ubiquitous. They provide a fairly solid framework for a film like this, a reliable and recognisable template that allows the film to invest its energies elsewhere. Judy is not intended to serve as a virtuoso piece of film-making that is as adventurous as I’m Not There or Man on the Moon or The Social Network. In fact, it is much closer to something like The Dallas Buyers’ Club or Wild, designed as a delivery mechanism for a simple heartbreaking story and as a vehicle for Renée Zellweger.

On those terms, it works reasonably well. Zellweger is very good. That said, she works much better in the quiet and subtler moments like that first performance than she does in the heightened moments just waiting to be harvested for awards show clips. Zellweger is very good at playing a performer, at offering a character who can turn on charm or talent like flicking a switch, who is so familiar with what people expect of her that she can almost deliver it on autopilot. It is these more intimate moments that underscore the film’s central tragedy, Garland turning herself into a fantasy just as fake (but also as alluring) as Oz itself.

Judy does what it is expected to, but never too much more. It lacks ambition or insight, but instead knows all the steps of this particular dance. Maybe that’s enough.

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