Judy Garland was a survivor, and the documentary Sid & Judy documents her tenacity and talent through her post-MGM years and what she calls her “184 comebacks”. Mixing live footage, Garland’s own personal audio recordings, the memoirs of her third husband and manager Sid Luft, and narration by Jennifer Jason Lee and Jon Hamm, Sid & Judy shows a superstar refusing to accept defeat time and time again.
Luft was married to Garland for thirteen years, and acted as her manager for longer, helping her realise her goal of remaking A Star is Born and performing at the Palace Theatre. Luft’s recollections are taken from his recently published memoirs (narrated by Hamm), but it is Judy’s personal recordings that are the star here.
Every time Garland was pronounced a ‘has-been’ she would find a way to rise again. From jetting to London to sell out the Palladium, her iconic Carnegie Hall concert, to launching The Judy Garland Show on TV, her talent would push her onward.
What arises is the image of a fierce talent, who could never overcome the abuses of her childhood (fed drugs by MGM doctors to keep working, constantly criticised for her weight, pushed by a stage-mother). We may know all this going in, but it is the fact that these tales are described in Garland’s own words, through her own recordings, that makes Sid & Judy so captivated.
Frank and blistering at times, Garland’s recordings show her sadness and anger at the constant fights and the men who used her, even the struggle to live up to her fans expectations of her. Luft documents how, early in her career, she was mercilessly used by the studio and discarded once she was no longer useful to them.
Film-lovers will enjoy watching some of the infamous alternate takes from A Star is Born – whole music sequences recorded multiple times on different sets over the course of the film’s over-running production. Plus early footage from Annie Get Your Gun, before Garland was fired and replaced by Betty Hutton. The documentary ends with a look at the rise of Garland’s status as a queer icon, and her legacy.
While I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Luft had white-washed his involvement in some of the worst aspects of Garland’s story, he is frank enough in his admission of a level of guilt or at least collusion in her negative behaviours.
The story of Judy Garland’s struggle may be well-worn by now, but Sid & Judy gives us a fresh illustration on her tragic and wonderful life, and a great excuse to revel in her talent.
By Chad Armstrong
Sid & Judy plays this Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th October at the BFI London Film Festival and premieres on Showtime in the US on 18th October.