The big moment in Judy arrives not unlike a crescendo. That’s when Judy Garland -- as played with gusto by Renee Zellweger -- sits on the edge of a stage and introduces a “song about hope.” The orchestra behind her begins playing a few familiar notes and Garland launches into a melancholic rendition “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The scene could have been bombastic cheese. But placed near the end of the film, it feels earned and especially poignant. Then the realization hits: By golly, Judy has brains, heart and courage.
Indeed, what could have been a predictable yawn of a true story about a gifted performer that couldn’t tame her own demons instead feels fresh and intimate. We always knew Garland was desperate for her audiences to forget their troubles and get happy yet who realized this need-to-please came at her own expense. Credit Zellweger, who gives Garland a sympathetic human touch. While the actress may not be an ideal physical match of a wary and weary Garland circa 1969 (despite her impressive hair and makeup team), she captures her essence. She’s quick-witted, emotionally fragile and warm and remorseful. And when she opens her mouth to sing those torch ballads, the transformation is nothing short of astonishing.
Before Judy’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Zellweger (who received a medal for career achievement) told the crowd that the part appealed to her because she was “always curious” about Garland’s twilight. It’s a fascinating chapter to be sure; still, director Rupert Goold (True Story) also smartly flashes back to a young Judy in the throes of her Wizard of Oz-era teen heyday. And in many ways, her story mirrors the ones we’ve seen in countless other music-themed biopics. Her parents are cold, distant figures in absentia. She reaches the pinnacle of fame too soon and becomes addicted to the limelight. She becomes hooked on pills and drinks alcohol like it’s tap water. Her romances are a disaster. It’s not a matter of if she’ll fall, but when and how far.