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Judy Garland: The Final Rainbow: a tender portrait of an icon

The programme delves deep with frank interviews with old colleagues and archive recordings of Garland’s sublime voice and sparkling onstage patter.

By Sarah Carson

“Born a star, but born with no chance.” That’s how the director Rupert Goold describes Judy Garland close to the end of Judy Garland: The Final Rainbow (5 October, 8pm), Radio 4’s attempt to “separate the woman from the myth” 50 years since her death, 80 years since The Wizard of Oz, and a few days after Goold’s biopic, Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, was released in cinemas.

The sense of doom in Goold’s words echoes through The Final Rainbow, in which Garland is cast in her own life as if it is a sort of tragic fairy tale. Inevitably, it promotes the film, with Zellweger reflecting on the research that helped her prepare, and Goold theatrically explaining how he urged her to search for Garland’s “essence”. But most interesting – and most heartbreaking – is when the programme delves deeper: frank interviews with old colleagues and acquaintances remembering Garland’s 1969 concerts in London’s Talk of the Town cabaret club; archive recordings of her sublime voice and her sparkling onstage patter. What emerges is a tender portrait of a woman who charmed everyone, who was funny and fun, but whose most extraordinary talent, after her voice, was for picking the wrong men,  a pill-addicted nervous wreck who was desperately alone.

“Nobody had as much fun as Judy did, or as much drama.” Stories abound, of Garland being smacked in the face before the final take of “Over the Rainbow”, of ending up so broke that Harrods impounded her clothes, of being forced by Hollywood executives to film four pictures a year – a process that was, according to Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, “one of the most devastating things you can do to the nervous system”.

The parallels with stars like Amy Winehouse are impossible to avoid – particularly when considering Garland’s fans, who not just loved but “defended” her. And Garland’s candid self-awareness of her own struggles, all along, is haunting. In her own words, “You’re either freezing at the top and lonely, or else you’re surrounded by people who are not truthful and use you. If you’re as unaware as I am and you’re a woman it can get pretty rough sometimes.” 

Judy Garland: The Final Rainbow
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 02 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries