This film has been called on the carpet for some minor inaccuracies, but given that it was based Lorna Luft’s biography of her mother, which was in turn based on Garland’s own stories about her life to her daughter, most of the bits of apocrypha are rooted in the way Garland liked to dramatize her own biographical anecdotes.
In reality, this is a rather brilliant film, one of the finest musical biographies of the decade. Tammy Blanchard (as teenage Judy) and Judy Davis (as the adult Garland) are marvelous in the lead roles, and the filmmakers were smart enough to use Garland’s own recordings for the musical numbers rather than make their leading ladies try to do an impossible impression.
And in the end, the film’s script strikes a nice balance as biopics go: it’s close enough to Garland’s actual biography to have the ring of truth, but avoids being so realistic that it becomes tedious and deflatingly authentic like the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely. It fictionalizes the material just enough that it actually holds together satisfyingly as a movie, and since, as stated, most of that fictionalization is built on Garland’s own penchant for self-dramatization, it has a certain authenticity even at its most apocryphal.
The characterizations, at least, seem very much in line with what history has told us about these people, even the harsher ones, like Louie B. Mayer as a calculating scumbag, or Busby Berkeley as a sadistic drill-sergeant. And the character of Garland herself is beautifully drawn. Despite what Lorna Luft claims in her closing narration, the film does portray Garland’s life as a tragedy, but a tragedy in the Classical sense, with Garland as a larger-than-life figure of almost epic grandeur, a sort of fallen angel.
That said, there are a couple of flaws. They switch from Blanchard to Davis a little too soon, resulting in Davis having to play the 22-year-old Garland of Meet Me In St. Louis, which even her superb acting can’t make entirely convincing. More importantly, this piece has the equivalent of proverbial musical-theater Second Act Trouble: the film becomes much less interesting in the second half, and especially once the material switches from drawing on things Garland told her daughter to things Lorna Luft was actually old enough to remember. The last few scenes in particular are a little too maudlin and too influenced by the usual TV movie conventions to match the sharper, more sophisticated writing seen earlier in the film.
Still, for all its occasional missteps and the way it trails off slightly in quality toward the end, this is still an extremely fascinating and satisfying work, and I highly recommend in to any lover of old Hollywood or of Garland’s music.