Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
The period between 2018 and 2019 was one where Hollywood rediscovered a lot of love for the musical biopic. Not since the early-to-mid 2000s did a substantial number of films centred on a musical star theme get substantial releases into cinemas, many of which found themselves in the middle of big pushes when it came to award season.
Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, A Star is Born and Judy were all released in a blaze of publicity. Certainly, A Star is Born was a reworking of a Hollywood classic, the latest in a small line of new generational interpretations of a popular story, but the Lady Gaga connection was a big pull and felt as much a part of her persona and star power.
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It was perhaps inevitable that Judy would similarly find itself being pushed by its distributors when it came to award season. Hollywood loves nothing more than having famous people play famous people as evidenced the year before when Rami Malek won his Academy Award for playing Freddie Mercury. The combination of the life of a well-known figure with a soundtrack made up of that same star’s back catalogue of famous and iconic songs can be a potent factor in gaining someone a coveted golden statue and publicity.
Rupert Goold’s film was met with decent reviews if not exactly universal acclaim, but the one thing everyone appeared to agree on was just how mesmerising and brilliant Renee Zellweger was in the lead role. Centring its story on her later years as she moves to London in order to keep some semblance of her stage career going, the film doesn’t quite conform to a typical biopic structure but instead focuses on the latter days of her all too short life.
Flashbacks recount the toxicity of her youth working on MGM films and the poisonous air that comes from dealing with Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery). There is an acknowledgement of #MeToo and #TimesUp to those scenes which have the stench of abuse emanating from Mayer, and while her life in between is never depicted, Goold’s film, based upon the stage play Over The Rainbow, captures vividly the aura of someone whose life has already been eventful, tragic and sad, but one filled with talent and creativity that is stifled by health issues and complex relationships that never go anywhere.
It would be easy to complain about Zellweger’s performance being Oscar-bait, but it never falls into the obvious traps that feel like someone is launching an awards campaign on screen. She has always been a tremendous actress, whether it be in Jerry Maguire, Cold Mountain or romantic comedies such as the Bridget Jones films. She has always been able to find moments of vulnerability and sympathy in her performances, and her interpretation of Judy Garland is no exception.
There is a gentle sadness that overhangs her that makes the audience desperately want to protect her, but the past is the past and this is a story that has sadly already been written. Like Bohemian Rhapsody, it perhaps finds too easy a way to give the audience a happy ending of sorts that can shy away from the inevitability of time and death even if it has to acknowledge in a post-script, and yet while cynics might scoff, it’s hard not to be moved by that final performance of ‘Over the Rainbow’ to an audience on-screen that sing along with her.
Yes, this is the type of film made to appeal to award voters, but it’s hard to resist this type of manipulation, especially when it contains a central performance as brilliantly vivid as the one Zellweger is delivering. It’s perhaps not indicative of real life, and maybe in reality Garland losing her way during a performance and the crowd helping her along with the lyrics never happened, but it is a purely magical moment the likes of which movies do so well, and better yet it comes in a tale that never shies away from the more embittered and distressing nature of her life.
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That isn’t to say the film is a depressing experience. It isn’t, but the way it captures Zellweger’s face as she finds a moment of joy in front of an audience supporting her is a cathartic and powerful moment. The actress’s delivery of the line “You won’t forget me, will you. Promise you won’t.” is as affecting a moment as any other film that has been covered here.
In the hands of anyone else, the film might not have landed as evocatively, but with Zellweger being the actress tasked with bringing Judy Garland to life, it’s a film that ends up becoming one you really won’t forget.