At first glance, she bears little resemblance to Judy Garland except in attempting to replicate her overwrought mannerisms. Overall, though, the casting of Renee Zellweger as one of the most beloved – and deeply troubled – American showbiz legends is an inspired choice.
The star of such memorable movies as Jerry Maguire, Chicago and Cold Mountain is at her peak, pulling out all the stops in this cautionary biopic about the price one has to pay to be constantly in the limelight as “the world’s supreme entertainer”.
Set a few months before Garland’s accidental death, aged just 47, through a barbiturate overdose in 1969, the film focuses on the final phase of her chequered career.
Struggling to cope with personal and financial crises, the vulnerable celebrity has recently arrived in London to perform at a series of concerts at The Talk of the Town nightclub. She hopes to earn sufficient money to wrest custody of her two young children from her boorish third husband (Rufus Sewell). But dependence on drugs and alcohol has turned Judy into an unreliable performer who often has to be coaxed into arriving at the venue by a determined assistant (Jessie Buckley).
Inspired by the popular play End of the Rainbow, director Rupert Goold, whose only previous feature was the crime thriller True Story (2015), resorts to frequent flashbacks to Judy’s years as a child actor under the tutelage of the overbearing MGM mogul Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery).
Goold stages several musical interludes with panache. The script also cleverly draws parallels between Judy’s unpleasant memories at the time of making The Wizard of Oz (1939) and her lack of confidence during her later years as an ageing diva.
We are even made privy to Judy’s whirlwind romance with a feckless entrepreneur (Finn Wittrock) who was soon to become her fifth and final husband.
Among the most poignant sequences is a chance encounter with a couple of gay fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who find themselves eating scrambled eggs prepared by Judy at their humble abode.
Admittedly, Renee Zellweger cannot emulate the pure magic of Garland’s vocal performances, but her full-throated renditions of classic tunes such as Come Rain or Come Shine and Over the Rainbow are showstoppers and then some.
As the title of her last film asserts, Judy Garland could have gone on singing had fate been a little more considerate towards her during the most distraught period of her tragic, and tragically curtailed, life.
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