Fifty years have passed since Judy Garland died in London from an accidental overdose of barbiturates, aged 47. Contrary to the lyrics of her most famous song, her troubles never did melt like lemon drops.
A few months before her death, she had headlined for five weeks at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, a run that summed up the rollercoaster ride of her extraordinary career.
Garland wowed audiences with her stagecraft, outraged them by showing up hopelessly drunk, seduced them with her voice, was booed off stage, received standing ovations… all of which is the focus of this compelling drama by Rupert Goold, a British director better known for his theatre work.
Yet if this picture belongs to anyone, it is Renee Zellweger, whose previous visits to England in the service of art were to play Bridget Jones and Beatrix Potter. Completing an unlikely trio, her performance in the title role is spine-tingling.
Fifty years have passed since Judy Garland died in London from an accidental overdose of barbiturates, aged 47. Contrary to the lyrics of her most famous song, her troubles never did melt like lemon drops
We have lately become used to – if you’ll pardon the pun – garlanded music biopics. This year alone, Rami Malek bagged an Academy Award as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, while Taron Egerton received enthusiastic plaudits for his Elton John in Rocketman. ‘I’m still standing,’ he sang.
Zellweger leaves them both standing. She is astonishingly good, not just looking and sounding like Garland, not just nailing the mannerisms, but also giving a performance of startling power and depth. When she sings The Trolley Song, you’d swear you were watching documentary footage. But she also perfectly captures the star’s unpredictability, her vulnerability. Somewhere over the rainbow, maybe there’s an Oscar waiting. That would be true poetic irony, for Garland never got one.
The film – which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in the US last night – starts years before those 1969 concerts, with the young Judy (Darci Shaw) being auditioned by MGM producer Louis B Mayer for The Wizard Of Oz.
‘LB’ at first seems avuncular, but flashbacks reveal him to be a monstrous bully, promising his teen starlet her voice will make her a million dollars before she’s 20, yet ordering that she be fiercely chaperoned and given pills to take the edge off her appetite. That’s what started her on the yellow brick road to self-destruction.
If this picture belongs to anyone, it is Renee Zellweger, whose previous visits to England in the service of art were to play Bridget Jones and Beatrix Potter. Completing an unlikely trio, her performance in the title role is spine-tingling
Three decades later, those destructive impulses have left her homeless, broke, dissolute. But the film portrays her as more sinned against than sinning, and pretty much entitled to her abundant self-pity. ‘I want what everybody wants – I just have a harder time getting it,’ she tells a British TV interviewer. Still, she has at least clung on to a waspish wit and is a devoted if unreliable mother to her two younger children Lorna and Joey.
As for the most famous of her offspring, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), we meet her only briefly, at an LA party where Garland first encounters a young entrepreneur, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who later visits her in England and becomes her fifth husband. The London concerts are intended to restore her financial security.
The film recalls last year’s Stan and Ollie, which told a similar story about Laurel and Hardy, who also came to perform live in the UK in an attempt to revive their flagging fortunes. One difference is that Tom Edge’s excellent screenplay is kinder to impresario Bernard Delfont, played here by Michael Gambon.
In London, Garland is assigned an assistant, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), whose Herculean task it is to make sure she gets to the Talk of the Town unsodden with booze, and not rattling with pills. She fails.
There is an electrifying moment when Rosalyn literally shoves Garland on stage. It’s like pushing a loose cannon. And yet, while in the wings she is addled by drink and drugs, plainly terrified, in the spotlight she is suddenly coquettish and charismatic.
There is humour as well as sadness in all this.
The film has fun with a pair of stage-door Johnnies, a gay couple who adore Garland and simply want her autograph, only for her to ask if they fancy joining her for dinner since she has nobody else for company. It’s a very funny scene, but also deeply poignant, and perhaps, in a wider sense, a timelessly eloquent comment on fame.
Judy goes on general release on October 2.