Close to 40 minutes pass before Renée Zellweger sings in “Judy,” and it’s a wonder that it takes so long. Director Rupert Goold’s adaptation of the musical “End of the Rainbow” tracks Garland in the tragic final passage of her life, as the 47-year-old makes her way through a tumultuous tour while grappling with the demons of her troubled showbiz life. Zellweger inhabits the role of the jaded, soul-searching musical icon reasonably well within a dreary and unremarkable saga that finds her grappling with her past, contending with pill-popping addictions and a broken family. It’s a familiar story that “Judy” struggles to freshen up, at least until Zellweger takes the mic.
At least the movie isn’t entirely a paint-by-numbers biopic. Goold presents the character’s rough childhood as a nightmarish set of surreal memories, and a ghoulish monstrosity who lords over the young performer in the form of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. “I make movies, Judy, but it’s your job to give those people dreams,” he says, peering down at her as they wander the yellow brick road. It’s a spooky starting point, but “Judy” returns to these fragmented memories so often they start to feel like padding for a story that’s spinning its wheels from the outset.
Garland’s contemporary circumstances unfold as a series of histrionic showdowns, with the occasional bittersweet tangent. A dyspeptic bundle of frustration and fatigue, Garland shrugs off rehearsal sessions to drink and pop pills, wallowing in her dark history. The movie speeds through some occasional bright spots, including her fifth marriage to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), but there’s a peculiar flatness to their romance that has a shoehorned-in quality. Garland’s ongoing fears of repercussion from the overseer of her tour (Michael Gambon) hold some measure of intrigue, but they’re similarly one-note — Cliff Notes to a drama on autopilot.
The one exception involves a relationship Garland forges with a couple of gay British fans, including a touching performance by Andy Nyman that epitomizes Garland’s ability to tap into the needs of a marginalized community. Her decision to hang out with the pair for an after-hours dinner is compelling enough to maintain a one-act play of its own. Still, even this touching subplot — which finds Garland performing an impromptu rendition of “Get Happy” while her new pal plays along in tears — only goes surface deep.
But when Garland takes the stage, “Judy” comes alive. Goold is primarily a theater director, and his last feature, “True Story,” showed little connection to that world. But his theater roots serve the energy of a movie profoundly invested in the psychological turmoil that drove Garland’s extraordinary presence. The movie finds its groove for one brief moment when Garland performs “The Trolly Song” while cutting away to young Judy (Darci Shaw) being forced to take diet pills by her oppressive mother as she struggles through her early days of fame. The ebullient song strikes an ironic contrast with the disturbing nature of Garland’s oppressive youth, and while the meta quality of these sequences is mostly on-the-nose — the child is almost always seen within the confines of a shadowy film shoot — the music elevates them.
And so does Zellweger, delivering more substance and feeling than anything in her filmography of the past decade (granted, there hasn’t been much). In her first musical turn since “Chicago,” she sings live, and does such an uncanny job of channeling Garland’s performative strengths that she’s practically communing with Garland’s ghost. Yet all of that power and credibility collapses whenever “Judy” returns to the airless melodrama that afflicts the rest of the plot: Yes, Garland’s inability to retain custody of her children is another sad development in her downward spiral, and drunken meltdowns set the stage for her demise. But in “Judy,” they come across like placeholders to keep the story moving along.
Fortunately, “Judy” delivers in the climactic performance that’s an inevitability from the start. When Zellweger sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a spellbound audience, the song concludes with a contrived moment sure to invite some eye-rolls. But the emotion sinks in anyway, in part because it’s nearly impossible to screw up “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Garland’s legacy may be tricky to recreate, her legacy perhaps too large for any biopic to contain, but the music speaks for itself.
“Judy” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. Roadside Attractions will release it theatrically on September 27, 2019.