Image Courtesy of BBC Films
I've often noted an aversion to celebrity biopics, as they are often rigidly formulaic, even those praised for their originality – like Rocketman – do less to shake up the formula than their reputations would suggest. However, Judy does do enough to stand out from the crowd. It certainly doesn't have especially high production values and the flashback structure is very rote and the flashbacks themselves are quite awkwardly inserted without much in the way of clear transition. Structurally it's very by the numbers, very similar to this year’s Stan & Ollie as this film also follows a beloved Hollywood film star of waning relevance, who takes a British tour as a last hurrah. In this case Garland's tour is personally motivated, as a means to the financial stability required to win custody of her two youngest children, as she battles her chemical dependency and resulting well-earned reputation for unprofessionalism. This story is intercut with her childhood under the sweaty wing of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and her domineering stage mother, whose demanding work schedule resulted in her modern-day addictions and instability.
The film it has most in common with is Olivier Dahan's biopic of Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose, although with far more of a baseline level of screenwriting and editing quality. Like that film it provides a great showcase for the talent of its star Renee Zellweger, who, despite a run of success at the start of the millennium when she went from starring in box office smash Bridget Jones' Diary, and best picture winner Chicago, to her own Oscar win for Cold Mountain in just three consecutive years, has done little work of major note since. This would do well to prove a career reviver for her, as she once again displays her skill as a dramatic, comic, physical and musical performer. It's not a subtle performance, and it's not in a subtle movie, but she captures Garland well in her mannerisms, whilst also finding the emotional core of the character dug out by Tom Edge's script, along with some delicious lines that Zellweger drops perfectly. The scene, quite late on, where she first takes to the stage quickly alleviates any early misgivings, the film's use of song is sensitively judged and the final scene is a beautiful exercise in out-of-character sentimentality that delivered the killer blow to those of us in the audience who had previously succeeded in keeping their tears in check.
Celebrity biopics rarely succeed in making the shallow lives of opulence of their subjects actually seem that unenviable, but there are some very touching little character moments here where your heart really goes out to this character who has been so deprived of simple pleasures.
The film's finest scenes however, including that very last, belong to Royce Pierreson and Arthur McBain, as a pair of middle-aged fans who offer Garland a home cooked meal as a show of appreciation. There are possibly more laughs and tears wrought by their brief appearance and final scene than there is in the whole rest of the film put together, and I liked the rest of the film! It's by no means a remarkable feat of cinema, but it's a charming film with a perceptive way of putting things, that is bolstered as much as necessary by some very likeable performances and a few really outstanding scenes with undeniable emotional resonance.