Viewing the big new biopic, JUDY, which opens tomorrow in cinemas, I did not feel that Renee Zellweger caught the great Garland’s essence particularly well in the production numbers. Judy Garland’s taut physicality in song (when she was not dancing) and especially her exquisite hand gestures are hard-wired into her power as a performer. Paired with the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, she was no dance-slouch either; in fact Judy Garland was a great natural mover who benefited from all kinds of dance training at MGM. I didn’t frankly find Zellweger’s full-body stage movement satisfying to watch — or reminiscent of Judy.
I have spent hours researching how Jack Cole and his assistant Audrene Brier coached actor Larry Parks to uncannily channel the in-song movement needed for the title role of The Jolson Story (1946). There is very little track record of this phenomenal feat. Cole achieved it without the benefit of video aid; Jack Warner famously refused to provide Harry Cohn, of Columbia Pictures, with a print of The Jazz Singer (made at Warner Bros.) for Cole and Parks to study. Now, Parks was not a dancer. But they succeeded. It can be done!
To assess the quality of Zellweger’s singing, I consulted an expert. Bob Garrett, an acclaimed vocal coach, worked with Judy Davis in her highly respected, and very moving, performance in the television mini-series, Life with Garland: Me and My Shadows (2003). That film, directed by friend-of-artsmeme Robert Ackerman, is growing in stature apropos the new movie. Garrett’s comments may inform your appreciation (or not) of JUDY.
I provided Bob with a single historic Garland video for study. “After You’ve Gone” is a song dating to 1918 that she sang her entire career, starting at age 13 right up to her seminal Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. The performance seen in this video soon followed, in 1963. It is impeccable.
The words of Bob Garrett follow hereafter.
“First I have to say that I’ve seen the trailer of the movie, it drove me little crazy she [Renee Zellweger] is so nasal in ‘The Trolley Song.’ Judy was not nasal.”
[0:45] If you notice, in order to get those high belt notes, she drops her jaw. What she does is, she drops the jaw for the vowel sound following the g. The nasality comes from keeping your jaw not dropped but closed. That is one problem with [Zellweger’s] singing.
In “After You’ve Gone,” she better than anybody tells the story [of the song]. Every line and every word. She tells the story. Most Judy Garland imitators get into copying the gestures.
[0:18] In “There’ll come a time and you’ll regret it,” not only is she telling the story through singing, but with her body, which is the whole secret to her. She had a facility to use her arms and head and eyes together to make those words make sense. So you know what she was talking about, and you felt her passion about the lyric.
[01:47] When she sings “drive you to ruin,” she throws her hand away, dismissively. [Her eyes also flash a dismissive look.]
[1:35] “Oh baby, think what you’re doing…” comes from deep in the soul. What she is saying is filled with yearning. [Another example is [01:11] “and you’ll miss,,,” repeated three times]. She gets across that you’re going to miss out on everything by making this hasty insane decision.
[0:32] What she is saying is, if you didn’t hear it the first time, I am going to slow it down and make you hear it. She stops that [up-tempo] rhythm to make sure she is heard.
[01:44] Then she ends with a fast flourish.
Concludes Garrett. “Judy is saying: ‘You are throwing away the best relationship you ever had and you’re going to figure at out at some point … but not now.'”