Reviews for this legendary woman’s final film opened with something in the neighborhood of “Either you’re a Judy Garland fan, or you’re not.” If I could hear with my eyes, this type of non-comment would be like nails on a chalkboard to read. Clearly I’m rather protective of certain artists who, despite their off-camera messiness, can do no wrong. The first CD of Judy’s I purchased in my adult life was The Essential Judy Garland, a wonderful compilation that’s perfect for getting one’s feet wet. The album has provided me with material for some of my singing career’s best performances . . . the ones in my car. But it wasn’t until I watched I Could Go On Singing (originally titled The Lonely Stage) that I realized some of my Essential favorites were from the film’s soundtrack. Any helping of Miss Garland’s movies frequently comes with a side of “Oh that’s where that’s from!” I’ve traveled far beyond the rainbow and Carnegie Hall since that cherished (and yes, essential) collection, and I’ve found that, more than her films, it’s her music that remains familiar and comforting to me.
“I’m full, full to the brim with the whole goddamned world!” Almost ten years after A Star Is Born, 41-year-old Judy took to the lonely stage and played Jenny Bowman, a champion singer whose voice reigned supreme over any other, past, present, or Liza . . . well okay, we can sit and debate about Liza. After arriving in London to perform at the Palladium, Jenny looks up the man with whom she had a son years ago, and as she gets to know the boy, the loneliness of her success begins to ooze out. For me Miss Garland always brings to the screen that combination of a tough outside and a squishy inside, sometimes confessing everything through a song; other times hiding behind one. “I can’t be spread so thin, I’m just one person,” Jenny (and Judy) concedes. “I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.”
You’ll see in the first ten minutes that few surprises are in store as far as the plot, and I can’t say this is Miss Garland at her most attractive. Beware of the wonderful song By Myself when it’s suddenly threatened by a rather unfortunate red dress in front of a red curtain. As the story goes, this costume was never approved by Edith Head. But beyond any “style-section” reviews of the film, I think it’s one of the most revealing roles I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately Judy Garland would live only another six years after this film’s release . . . people come and go so quickly here. This tragic new level of dramatic irony fuels her performance with an obviously unscripted authenticity that may be upsetting to some and fascinating to others; I’ll remain there between the two extremes until the cows come home. Okay, enough of the analytical fiddle-faddle . . .
One afternoon I think the girl in the car next to mine assumed I was flirting when I smiled at her — sorry darling, Judy just hit a note that made me super giddy (in a duet with Barbra, thank you very much!), and you happened into my line of sight. Of all the flattering things one could say about Judy Garland’s voice, one that especially tickles me is when a song’s slowly building tempo is ripped to shreds when that lion comes roaring out of her throat. Judy ends Hello Bluebird with a growling cannonball of a “Hello!” and I imagine that part of my CD is just about to snap from repetition. Judy’s finale performance of the song I Could Go On Singing is frighteningly hypnotic; at one point she catapults the word “singing” at us (without its second “g,” mind you) as if she’s throwing her drink across the room. But before she decides to get on the stage and slay her audience, she reminds us, “you can get me there, sure, but can you make me sing? I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to, just for me. I sing for my own pleasure, whenever I want — do you understand that?”
Indeed we do.