The turbulent life of Judy Garland is fairly well-known, from her successful juvenile movie career to her difficult adult life ending in tragedy. Less known is the period of time in 1968-1969 when down on her luck, she accepted money to appear for five weeks of concerts in London.
Concert-goers in 1969 must have been quite different than my experience today. What we see is both an admiration of love, and at times, hostility and cruelty. While Garland performances were uneven and sometimes ragged, she had to put up with taunting and people pelting her with dinner rolls. In the film, Garland is seen incurring the hostility of the audience and falling on stage, without receiving help from either the band or crew. That’s historically accurate, but the film leaves out that a member of the audience, a concentration camp survivor, came to her defense to battle hecklers.
To be honest, Judy is so downbeat, it is like watching a slow-motion train-wreck, and being unable to pull yourself away. The film is so sad. I mean really, really sad. As the film ended, funereal-type end music played and the title slide said that she died six months after the London concerts. I saw audience members wipe their eyes and heard one person lightly sobbing. My own chest was tight and I already knew that she died after those concerts!
You know the ending but you experienced the sadness washing over the audience. That’s how seductive this film is. Whether you believed Renee Zellweger becoming Judy Garland, or just connected with Garland’s character, this was a tough film to watch. It is hard for an audience to stay involved with a story full of disappointment and setback, of self-medication, and of Garland having to apologize to men in her life. First to movie studio head Louis B. Mayer, and then the owner of the concert hall, and somehow pulling a performance from her falling-apart life. Despite the tragedy in her life, it is also a story of courage, and finding strength in the abyss. The woman never gave up, and in the end, wanted enough financial success to be reunited with her children.
Zellweger should be an Oscar contender, you’ll not see a performance like this. She’s amazing. The online reviews have both praise and criticism. Garland’s singing voice was not used, it was Zellweger who handled the vocals. Did it sound like Garland, not exactly, Garland had a huskier voice and a lower ranged than Zellweger, so a purist would be unhappy. Zellweger does take on the very worn and almost sickly appearance of Garland at the end of her life. She was 47 when she died and looked much older. Life was sucked out of her by MGM and everyone else who took their share of her life. Zellweger isn’t a perfect physical match, but her attention to visual mannerisms and tapping into the emotional complexity of Garland’s situation, it is a fascinating performance.
This was not a documentary, the life events of Garland’s London concerts are partially fictionalized by the accounts that I read. Some events changed, some characters added, and others left out.
Taking on a project like this on the life of an icon like Garland is a magnet for second-guessing and criticism. In part because of the tragedy and romanticism, Garland is one of the most loved personalities of the 20th Century: Elvis, Marilyn and Judy.
“I approached it really humbly with curiosity and lifelong admiration – awe, really,” said Zellweger in an interview with FoxNews. “And I just wanted to learn as much as I could and read between the lines because I think that a lot of what we sort of address in the film has gone unaddressed or not.”
The reaction from Garland’s family, including her two daughters, is much less positive.
“And I do not approve nor sanction the upcoming film about Judy Garland in any way. Any reports to the contrary are 100 per cent fiction,” said Liza Minnelli, older daughter of Garland.
“I’m really protective of my mom’s legacy and my mother’s legendary career,” younger daughter Lorna Luft said. “And I feel that if you really want to know about my mom, go see her movies, go listen to her recordings, and go watch her television shows, and that’s how you’ll know about her.”
Zellweger in an interview with Lorraine Kelly of ITV, said she hoped the film would become seen as an expression of affection and celebration of her life and legacy. Despite the criticism, the film shows her fight and perseverance, during a very challenging period of her life.
The supporting cast is mostly British actors including Michael Gambon as the owner of the Talk of the Town concert hall. The film is based on End of the Rainbow, a play by Peter Quilter and adapted by Tom Edge. Rupert Goold, a seasoned stage director, was behind the camera. It was his decision to record the music live, instead of the actors performing to pre-recorded tracks. He wanted the strain and roughness in the performances, the same as Garland endured during the actual Talk of the Town performances. He got it.