In the 50 years since Judy Garland’s death, countless attempts to document or dramatize the star’s professional highs and personal lows have been made, to varying degrees of success.
Few of those efforts, however, have felt as cohesive and well-researched as Stephen Kijak’s “Sid & Judy.” Debuting Friday on Showtime, the new documentary is, without question, the most intimate look at the real-life Garland in recent memory.
Still, those hoping for a behind-the-scenes exploration of Garland’s triumphs in films like 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” or 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” would be better served elsewhere. The documentary focuses on the star’s relationship with her third husband, film producer Sid Luft, and what Kijak considers to be the “great second act” of her career that coincided with that 13-year marriage.
(Check out the trailer for “Sid & Judy” above.)
Even for seasoned fans, “Sid & Judy” is a compelling treat, comprising colorful footage and photos of Garland on stage and at home, as well as recorded phone conversations between Luft and Hollywood executives.
To fill in gaps, Kijak uses audio recordings Garland made in the 1960s for an unpublished autobiography. In a surprisingly effective move, actors Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason Leigh also read excerpts from Luft’s posthumous 2017 memoir, “Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland,” in character voiceovers as Luft and Garland, respectively.
Luft was the longest-lasting of Garland’s five husbands and, by many accounts, their marriage was her most turbulent. Historically, he’s been credited with reviving his then-wife’s stage and screen career, while squandering her earnings and continuing to enable the drug addiction that took her life in 1969. In the film, there are a number of especially dark moments, including a recording of Garland personally recalling a suicide attempt, and Luft describing how Garland accidentally set their home on fire.
Kijak, however, isn’t interested in tabloid-level exploitation. Instead, he sees his film as capturing the “real connection” between Luft, who died in 2005, and Garland that was “deeply passionate and very volatile.”
The Massachusetts-born filmmaker has carved out a niche for documentaries about era-defining music icons, having directed 2015’s “Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of” and 2018’s “If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Joking that he “grew up in a Barbra [Streisand] house,” he wasn’t a big Garland fan when he was tapped to direct “Sid & Judy.”
His feelings shifted, however, once he began his research and delved into episodes of “The Judy Garland Show,” the 1963 musical variety series featuring Garland performing alongside Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and, most famously, Streisand.
“The lightbulb moment, honestly, was seeing Judy sing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’ a clip of which is in the film,” Kijak said. “It’s just a volcanic performance. I just thought, ‘Holy shit, what have I been missing?’ She’s jazzy as hell, she swings hard ― I love the intensity and power of it. There was a great sense of revelation in discovering it.”
In some respects, “Sid & Judy” is a portrait of Garland a few years before the events seen in “Judy,” the big-screen biopic starring Renée Zellweger that’s now in theaters. The documentary starts at the onset of Luft’s affair with Garland, who was then still married to director Vincente Minnelli, in 1950.
Garland’s career was, by then, at a crossroads following the termination of her contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. With Luft acting as her manager, she’s reborn as a touring concert act, and later returns to the big screen in 1954’s “A Star is Born,” for which she nabbed an Oscar nomination. Together, the couple have two children, Lorna and Joey Luft.
While “Sid & Judy” portrays Luft more empathetically than many books and films about Garland ― including “Judy” ― Kijak stressed that he didn’t set out to “rehabilitate” the producer’s image in any way.
And while Garland’s substance abuse is central to Kijak’s narrative, the filmmaker would like viewers to come away from “Sid & Judy” with a better understanding of the pressures the star was up against, too.
“In a lot of work about Judy, there tends to be this sort of pathologizing of her,” Kijak said. “It’s just the pity, the whole tragic complex, which is so well-worn by now. But to hear it firsthand ... brings you closer to the story. The machine of recovery we have today wasn’t available to her. That’s the real tragedy.”
Kijak sees the release of “Sid & Judy” on the heels of the movie “Judy” as a happy coincidence. That biopic, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in September, has earned Zellweger critical accolades and early Oscars buzz. A number of dissenting opinions, however, have emerged in recent weeks.
At the time of his HuffPost interview, Kijak had yet to catch “Judy,” though he said he was looking forward to seeing Zellweger’s performance.
“It’s a fantastic moment for Judy,” he said. “If you see the feature, you can dig a little deeper and get into our film. They’re two very different things, but both are full of her great music and performances.”
“Sid & Judy” premieres Oct. 18 on Showtime.