Central to Judy Garland’s legacy is her iconic singing voice, so any biopic about the iconic and tragic performer has to take into account the process of recreating it. Star Renée Zellweger really sings in Judy (out Sept. 27), a film that shows the Hollywood institution struggling with addiction, money issues, and a fraught home life, all while preparing for a series of performances at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub in 1969, shortly before her death that same year. Zellweger’s renditions of "Over the Rainbow," "Get Happy," and "The Trolley Song," among other songs Garland made famous, aren’t all there is to her performance. But her ability to recreate the star’s voice is contributing to the Judy Oscar buzz.
That doesn’t mean the actor was entirely confident, however. "She’s considered one of the greatest vocal performers of all time, and I don’t consider myself a vocalist," Zellweger said to CBS News.
So the star leaned heavily into her preparation for the role, as she explained to The Wall Street Journal at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I couldn’t sing [her] songs when we started. I’ve never really tried to sing belters before, so it was a process, working towards being able to manipulate my voice that way," she said. "I methodically tried to break it down and look at it from a stylistic perspective: ‘Oh, this is the recognizable sort of quality of Judy’s performance, and she bows this way and holds her face this way.’ Like that. I tried to intellectualize it a little bit because it seems much less daunting. And then there were certain things I couldn’t figure out [at first]. I couldn’t figure out the differences in her facial expressions that would change in her cheeks and her eyebrows."
Judy isn’t the first time Zellweger has sung onscreen, however. Audiences have heard her sing in movies like Empire Records, Down With Love, and New in Town, just to name a few. She also starred in 2002’s Oscar-winning Chicago, an adaptation of the widely popular stage musical. But the murderous Roxie Hart’s showstoppers are a world away from Garland’s style — Zellweger’s vocal performance in that film is higher pitched and livelier, as opposed to Garland’s deeper, more powerful register.
Speaking with Billboard, Zellweger touched on those pitch differences between her voice and Garland’s. "Well, I never tried to sing songs like [Garland’s] before because I just didn’t think that my voice was suited to it," she said. "I thought, ‘I have a tiny voice. I have a bright little voice, and these are songs that require a bit more power and resonance.’ I didn’t believe that, like going to the gym and building any other muscle in your body, that you could manipulate your vocal muscles." She went on to say that she did the work — tirelessly — and found that it was actually possible to change her voice. "So it was just method," Zellweger concluded.
The real test for the actor was sining "Over the Rainbow" — a tearjerking moment in the film — live for hundreds of crew members and extras. "My stomach just flipped when you even referenced it," she told Playbill of the scene. "I’ve never done that before, ever." To USA Today, she called it "terrifying," adding, "And if I could have run away, I would have run away." Director Rupert Goold told the paper that he kept Zellweger hidden away from the onlookers until it was time for her to sing. And then: "She had the audience absolutely in the palm of her hand," he remembered to Playbill.
The full Judy soundtrack features 12 songs by Zellweger-as-Garland with guest appearances by Sam Smith and Rufus Wainwright and will be released the same day as the film. Whether the extraordinary amount of work the actor did to be able to complete the task results in an Oscar nomination is yet to be seen.
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