Renée Zellweger recreats the Garland magic in ‘Judy’ biopic

Renée Zellweger takes on Judy Garland’s larger than life voice in “Judy.”

Renée Zellweger takes on Judy Garland’s larger than life voice in “Judy.”

Roadside Attractions / Contributed photo /

For many generations, Judy Garland will always be the young girl who wanted to click her heels to thrive in a place without conflict. Throughout Garland’s career, she continued to search for such peace, sometimes with success, often with stumbles, always with a clarity of view and voice. How well I remember her television show, from the 1960s, where she would simply sing. Even for a kid who could have been watching “Bonanza” on that other network, Judy continuously amazed.

Because Garland’s life and career traveled so many ups and downs, a traditional biopic would struggle to navigate all the turns. The new film “Judy” wisely focuses on one chapter in this entertainer’s life, near the end of her career, when all the choices she made finally caught up with her and challenged her ability to touch the people who mattered, including her fans, friends and children. Without making excuses for Garland’s behavior, or exaggerating the performer’s impact, the film helps us see the woman in a new way while celebrating the emotional commitment she brought to every performance.

It’s no easy task. Since Garland died, every nuance in her singing, every gesture in her performing, seems to have frozen in time. Years ago, Australian actress Judy Davis captured the essence of the woman while relying on lip-synching to recreate the Garland performance. What makes Renée Zellweger’s performance so remarkable is how she dares to use her own voice to recreate the layers of Garland’s late-in-life vocals. Even though Zellweger was Oscar nominated for the musical “Chicago,” she isn’t necessarily considered an accomplished vocalist. But she makes it work in “Judy,” magically suggesting the impact of time on a voice once considered by many as the greatest show business ever experienced.

Zellweger makes the film work — despite a script that, at times, can reveal its origins as a stage play — because she doesn’t rely on visual tricks to make us believe in her performance. Unlike many an actor who may suggest an actual person with the help of makeup or prosthetics, Zellweger relies less on physical enhancements than on recreating Garland’s tension, and revealing the many layers of her reactions. We feel the fears that plague this lady, the financial woes, the motherhood worries, the professional doubts, because Zellweger lets the raw emotions out without overdoing the histrionics. The result is a performance that makes us feel we get to spend time with someone we have always found fascinating.

Musically, the film makes the effort to accurately recreate the Mort Lindsey arrangements that Garland used in the 1960s, complete with rich orchestrations and distinctive rhythms. This enhances the authenticity of Zellweger’s interpretations as she wisely avoids trying to capture Garland’s best voice, instead choosing to suggest the passage of time into her vocals. When the actress precisely recreates Garland’s unique take on such standards as “By Myself” and “Come Rain or Shine” and, especially, “Over the Rainbow,” the magic stirs. Thanks to “Judy” — and the commanding work of Renée Zellweger — the brilliance of Judy Garland comes to life, again for a couple of hours.

Film Nutritional Value: “Judy”

Content: High. The story of Judy Garland's final performances offers rich insight into the woman, her demons and her soul.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to Renée Zellweger's layered performance, the magic of Garland comes to life in a film that reveals as it celebrates.

Message: Medium. As entertaining as the film may be, it is less about the message it sends as the entertainment it shares.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to relive the impact of this legendary performer is worth a visit to the theater.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie will give you and your older children quite a bit to discuss, especially if you once enjoyed "The Wizard of Oz."

“Judy” runs 1 hour, 58 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for “substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking.