Review – Zellweger Follows The Yellow Brick Road (“Judy”)

In a bold departure, this movie just chronicles the last sad and tumultuous days of singer/actress Judy Garland who, back in 1969, was broke and unemployed and attempted to stage a come-back in London with a five-week run of sold-out concerts. Plagued by her own demons, her final concerts was the stuff of legend.

First, some backstory: owing a fortune to the IRS for not paying her taxes and being out of work (her 1961 TV series was cancelled), Garland was forced to go back on stage or perform on a few TV specials. A 1964 Australian tour didn’t go well and she was fired from a major role in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. With her Brentwood house gone, her debts climbing and homeless, Judy did a 27-show gig in New York, but the IRS took most of her earnings.

Now the review.

Hitting the lowest point in her life, Judy Garland (Rene Zellweger) and her two children are kicked out of their hotel and wind up back at ex-husband, Sid Luft’s (Rufus Sewell), Brentwood home. A promising lead comes in at her eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli’s (Gemma-Leah Deveraux), swanky party in the form of entrepreneur playboy Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock). London is calling and wants the entertainer to perform over there for some big bucks. Apprehensive about leaving her children behind, she accepts and agrees to sing at The Talk of the Town dinner theater.

Run by no-nonsense Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), Judy is given a palatial hotel suite and Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), a personal assistant. But Judy, crippled by anxiety and popping pills like candy, barely makes the first show. Her opening song (shot in one remarkable take) is spellbinding. As the weeks progress, some shows are great, others… well, not so much. She makes friends with two gay super-fans (Walter Rickerts & Andy Nyman), and tries to maintain control, which comes easier once Mickey flies into town and the two hook back up. Do I hear wedding bells for the fifth time? Yup!

In-between all this we also get a glimpse (occasional flash-backs) at Judy’s suffocating and harrowing 16-year-old (Darci Shaw) self as a rising star on the MGM lot with that lecherous rat-bastard, Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who constantly berates her. This story, sad to say, does not have a happy ending, folks. Suffice to say, things for Judy do NOT well and I’ll just leave it at that. Based on Peter Quilter’s play, End Of The Rainbow, the screenplay was adapted by newbie Tom Edge (BBC-TV series like The Crown and Lovesick).

Although a BBC made film, it’s “Hollywood-ized”, that is, many of the factual details, stories, locations, people, and timelines have been dramatized for your viewing (??) pleasure. If you want the REAL story, check out Wikipedia or several YouTube documentaries. Cleaned-up for the screen, this is really a showcase for Zellweger and her absolute embodiment of Garland. Anorexic-thin, gaunt, and having the same vocal cadence and nervous tics as Garland, Zellweger is amazing, right down to her singing (not dubbed). If she doesn’t get an Oscar for this, I’ll be shocked! There are some nice (albeit imagined) moments with Judy and her super fans (Rickerts & Nyman add much needed comedic relief) and young Shaw is excellent.

Also amazing is director Rupert Goold, whose primarily known for directing just British musicals, Shakespeare, & local theater. He’s done one movie (2015’s True Story), but he knows his craft in staging a scene and camera movements. That one-shot take for Judy’s first song is one example of his prowess. The only fly in the ointment is the rather tepid script that needed punching up in spots. This is more a watered-down, palatable, cup-half-full version of Judy without all that pesky tragedy and life-threatening stuff thrown in. Still, the performances are stunning and well worth your ticket.

Life With Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows (2001)

This TV miniseries, which ran over several nights, chronicles Garland’s life from her childhood performance in 1924 until her death in 1969. Divided in two parts: part one graphically depicts her rise to fame in the 1930s, her descent into drugs, and her fall from grace in the 1950s. The second part begins with her marriage to Sid Luft, her successful return to movies, concert performances, her personal issues, and then her death at age 47.

Judy Davis, whose mesmerizing performance as Garland, got her an Emmy AND a Golden Globe Award. Yeah, she’s THAT good! Judy Garland (born Frances Gumm) is part of a stage trio act with her sisters, but wows MGM mega-mogul Louis B. Mayer (Al Waxman) at 13-years-old with her booming singing voice. A contract is signed, but little does Judy know that the film industry back in the 30’s & 40’s were merciless. Even though she’s teamed up with super-star Mickey Rooney (Dwayne Adams) for a number of movies, she is considered ‘fat’ and this starts her life-long addiction to pills to lose weight. Her triumph in The Wizard Of Oz is hampered by her father’s death and her self-destructive attitude to do better.

Her meteoric rise to fame is matched only by her horrible crash ‘n’ burn by legendary director Busby Burkeley (Michael Rhoades) who almost fired her during filming Girl Crazy. She meets her future husband, Vincent Minnelli (Hugh Laurie), on her next movie (Meet Me In St. Louis) and vows never to take drugs again, but that doesn’t last long. Right after having her baby, Liza, she slips back into the bottle (both ones) and, not only loses her marriage and is fired from her picture, Annie Get Your Gun, and tries to commit suicide.

Luckily, she meets Sid Luft (Victor Garber) who gets her back on her feet again. But even though she’s on the come-back road with A Star Is Born, TV shows, and special concert benefits, she continues to fall apart at the seams little by little, spiraling down until her overdose death in London. This movie does NOT pull any punches with a searing screenplay by Robert Freedman, best known for his comedic stage musicals (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder), adapting the tell-all book by Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft. You would think it would down-play Judy’s drug and alcohol addiction, but it doesn’t. If anything, it gives you an insight as to why it happened and how it destroyed a persons life.

It’s lengthy, to be sure, but you get a rare look into the life of Judy Garland that is told in a way you hardly ever see: director Robert Allen Ackerman (mostly TV movies and theater) delivers this movie in an almost documentary style, with Luft’s narration, a 70’s filming look, and painstaking and meticulously recreations of black & white newsreels and several of Judy’s iconic movie scenes. The Wizard Of Oz recreation is jaw-dropping; how’d they get those costumes to LOOK so perfect? The acting is top-notch and you can see why Davis won her Emmy & Golden Globe; she not only plays Garland, she IS Garland!

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