Judy is in her mid-40s and has been performing since she was two years old – something she never tires from telling her audiences. You might remember her best from that film she did when she was still a teenager – something called The Wizard of Oz.
But that was then and this is now (now being 1968). She’s squandered the money that found its way down to her, and is finding it difficult getting gigs. Which is important, as she’s in a custody battle with her ex-husband and needs to prove she can look after her kids. In order to be able to be with them, she temporarily leaves them and the USA, to take up a run at the Talk of the Town in London.
But Judy has Trust Issues, and this is not just because she’s a bit of a self-pitying diva (plot spoiler: she is a bit of a self-pitying diva). As things get too much for her, we see a series of memories/flashbacks, which explain how she has got to where she is today.
For instance, there are the times on the set of The Wizard of Oz, where the Industry folk were pumping her full of pills, so she could work 18 hour days. When she jumps into the artificial pool, she is hauled up in front of the creepy Louis B Meyer, who tells her that if she wants to swim, she can come to his villa any time, day or night. He then insists that she thanks him before she is allowed to go. She is still only 15.
So, while the film does show Judy behaving inappropriately, it also provides the context that means that we never lose her, not when she’s turning up late for concerts, not when she’s self-medicating with prescription drugs, alcohol and anything else she can find, not even when she gets drunk and starts abusing the audience.
Seeing as the audience, particularly in the front rows, seems to be full of Bullingdon Club types in tuxedos, they pretty much get what they deserve. When Judy turns up a bit late, they start booing and throwing bread rolls (they’d be terrible at a Libertines gig). And if she doesn’t play, they’re just as happy to watch Lonnie Donegan. After all, they’re just their to eat a meal and listen to some music – any music – in the background.
Similarly, although the promoters organising Judy’s concert appear to show concern, they’re most interested in maintaining their investment. The exceptions appear to be Rosalyn, the woman who’s main job seems to be ensuring that Judy gets onstage, and a doctor, both of whom tell Judy to look after herself. Judy’s mistrust of everyone means that their message takes a while to get through, but you see that they do care for her in a way that few other people do.
One pair who do win Judy’s trust are Stan and Dan, a gay couple, who do not have the money of the tuxedo-clad buffoons, but have saved as much money as they can raise to see as many performances as they can. They missed the previous tour as one of them was in jail – 1968 is only one year after the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain.
Some critics have found the parts of Stan and Dan to be unnecessary, and even as slowing the plot down. I disagree wholeheartedly. Stan and Dan provide the film with extra context. We are reminded that Friends of Dorothy earned their name because of their affinity for the Wizard of Oz and that one of the many reasons for the Stonewall riots was Judy’s death.
Stan and Dan are also a contrast to the phoney fans and Industry people who are responsible for Judy turning out as she did. It seems highly unlikely, but perfectly natural, when Judy comes round to their house for an omelette and a game of cards.
And then there is the music. In a sense it shouldn’t matter that Renee Zellwecker sang all the songs herself – her main job is to act out the part – but the film would have suffered had she been a terrible singer. Not all songs are sung perfectly – which is as it should be, as Judy was past her best – but you never lose the sense of the power of the performer.
Like all good gigs, they save the Hit Single till last, so you always know that the film isn’t going to end soon until they wheel it out. And while it sounds horribly sentimental when Judy introduces That Song as being about finding a way towards your dreams, somehow it works.
There are faults – sometimes its a little too formulaic and schmaltzy, but Judy has a sense of character and a sympathy for the indignities that are still suffered by women in the film and music industries. It probably won’t be the best film of the year, but its certainly the best one so far.