Review: 'Judy' only sings with Renee Zellweger's remarkable Judy Garland

A couple of stars are reborn in the new film “Judy,” thanks to a phenomenal turn from Renee Zellweger.

She sings, struts and scowls as the iconic Judy Garland in the twilight of her career, a transformational role that transcends director Rupert Goold’s otherwise so-so drama (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday in most major markets, expanding throughout October). Without Zellweger’s remarkable Oscar-worthy performance, it’s standard-issue biopic fare – with her, the cultural icon comes to life again, warts and all.

Based on the stage musical/drama “End of the Rainbow,” “Judy” catches up with Garland decades after ruby slippers and that yellow brick road – though flashbacks to that teenage girl (Darci Shaw) show a youngster under the thumb of others, a contrast to the self-confident worldwide star she would become.

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Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) is a showstopper with colorful backup dancers in
Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) is a showstopper with colorful backup dancers in

But in the winter of 1968, things aren't going great for Judy. She’s broke and deep in debt, ostensibly homeless, can’t keep a manager, and battling for custody of her children (Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd) with her latest ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). She’s also not doing well physically, with health concerns and insomnia that make her look beyond her 46 years.

Unable to find work, Judy takes a five-week gig at London’s Talk of the Town theater and also pursues a relationship with her soon-to-be fifth hubby, musician and businessman Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). But she is, in the modern parlance, a hot mess, and the club’s management and her assigned helper Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) have a hard time just getting her onstage on time.

Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) begins a romance with entrepreneur Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) in
Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) begins a romance with entrepreneur Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) in

When she takes the stage, though, belting out “By Myself” or singing “The Trolley Song” surrounded by a bevy of feather-frilled showgirls, Judy the legend returns and she shines in the spotlight. The film is ultimately about those ups and downs and finding that consummate entertainer again even as her life teeters. (The London shows ended up being some of her last: She died of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969, at age 47.)

It’s not the usual cradle-to-grave story, but “Judy” doesn’t break the true-life drama mold either, and the flashbacks don’t really add all that much to the film other than making you want to get back to Zellweger’s older Judy. One of the more emotional sequences, however, is a nod to Garland’s standing as a gay icon: One night after a show, Judy meets a pair of fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira), who cook dinner for her and recount how her music helped them through an intolerant era.

Setting aside the fact that Zellweger looks uncannily like the multitalented actress who entertained audiences in “The Wizard of Oz” and “A Star Is Born,” she wows throughout the movie, especially in the most intimate moments. The actress stomps around almost like a child when things aren’t going well, and the way she slouches over, spine curved and cigarette in hand, communicates her deteriorating state and the toll taken by her struggles with addiction.

Zellweger is just as astonishing in showstopper mode, with songs that include some obvious Garland stylings yet are undeniably her, too. And when “Over the Rainbow” hits, with her sitting down and singing unaccompanied to an enraptured crowd, you’re reminded both of Judy’s timeless appeal and Zellweger’s own eminence.

“Judy” the movie might not rise to her level, and it might be a little too early to start engraving golden men, but Zellweger proves as vital as ever in her most essential role.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Judy' review: Renee Zellweger's Oscar-worthy Judy Garland boosts bio