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I was worried about this movie, because…I was looking forward to Stan & Ollie last year. It had two actors I love playing Laurel and Hardy. It showed them at the end of their career, playing shows in the UK.

This movie shows the legendary Judy Garland, six months before her death, doing a series of shows in London. Yet surprisingly, it was more like a movie I loved from a few years ago (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool). In that movie, Annette Bening should’ve been nominated for an Oscar. Well, Renee Zellwegger will not only get the nomination, she’ll probably win her second Oscar for this performance. She should probably wear the gold outfit she wore onstage in one scene, to match the little gold statue she’ll be taking home. 

Now, we knew she could sing after Chicago. But who knew she could inhabit this character so well. It’s the best performance of her career. You quickly forget you’re watching Zellwegger and just think it’s Garland.

One of the disappointing things is how all these music biopics that have come out the last few years have been so formulaic. They work so hard on recreating the onstage stuff, that we end up wishing we knew more about the person. I mean, as amazing as Bohemian Rhapsody was at recreating the Live-Aid performance, why did we need to spend 20 minutes of the movie watching it? Yet in this, watching her sing an amazing version of The Trolly Song — with background dancers, or a version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that will bring tears to your eyes as she stops halfway through it with a tear in her eye…wow.

The opening is terrific, with Louis B. Meyer lecturing Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz. There’s a later lecture she gets from him that’s not as nice, and you start to really feel for her. When celebrities die young, we often have little sympathy if it’s because of their drug use. Yet the way this studio used and abused her, at such an early age, is just disgusting. Who would’ve thought the nicest guy to her would’ve been the usually mean Mickey Rooney. Oh, and the actors playing Meyer, Rooney, and daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) — all look perfect.

The film shows Garland fighting with her ex-husband Sid (played by Rufus Sewell, who I haven’t seen since the brilliant sci-fi film Dark City 20 years ago).

She realizes she’s probably going to lose custody of her kids to Sid, since she is kicked out of her swanky apartment. So she goes to do a five-week run of shows at the “Talk of the Town Theatre” in London.

Her assistant in England is Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, who just played a singer with alcohol problems in Wild Rose earlier this year). Rosalyn spends a lot of the movie trying to get Garland to the stage on time (sometimes sober, sometimes drunk). Watching that first trek to the stage was brilliantly done. The way the camera follows her as a drunken mess at the hotel, to being dressed, and having make-up put on; she then stumbles to the elevator complaining about being dragged on stage from the age of two…getting out of a cab stumbling and greeting fans and paparazzi; she’s basically shoved onto the stage as a drunken mess. Yet after a few seconds of stumbling around, knocks out the audience (and the audience watching in the movie theatre). It was made even more surprising to us because we saw how she blew off the band leader (Royce Pierreson) the day before when she refused to rehearse. 

There’s some good supporting work from Michael Gambon, as the frustrated promoter who books Judy for those shows in London. Finn Wittrock plays Mickey Deans, who picks her up at a party at Liza’s house…and flies to England to be with her. He quickly becomes her 5th husband. Yet everyone in this movie is just standing back and letting Zellwegger do her thing. It’s like when the Bulls were in the championships in the ‘90s and Michael Jordan just took over.

There were a number of great scenes in this movie. An early one shows Garland being paid $150 for a show, and it reminded me of Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler, getting paid crap to do an autograph show or a wrestling event at a high school gym.

There’s a scene with a couple of fans waiting for her after a show…and that goes in a direction that’s just so heartwarming.

As I said, the songs are all terrific. In one version of “Get Happy” she sounds like a slightly inebriated Billie Holiday. 

I think the director made a conscious effort to not show all the ugliness that surrounded Garland at this time of her life, but it showed enough for us to see what kind of a trainwreck this talent was at this point.

The movie was a pleasant surprise.

3 ½ stars out of 5.


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