The new documentary from Showtime and director Stephen Kijak, Sid & Judy, premiered last night to a standing-room-only crowd at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theater. The film was featured as part of “Frameline,” the San Francisco International LBGTQ+ Film Festival (www.frameline.org).
The documentary is just what the title indicates: it’s about the relationship between Judy Garland and her third husband, Sid Luft, featuring material from the semi-autobiographical book “Judy and I,” film and television clips, plus many rare, previously unheard, audio tapes; previously unreleased home movie footage, personal letters; and a lot of very rare photos. Much of the rare material come from the collections of Micheal Siewert and Sid & Judy’s second child, Joe Luft.
Of note for Garland fans who think they’ve seen and heard it all:
Rare audio recordings that Sid made of phone calls (who knew Sid recorded phone calls?), including one very enlightening conversation between him and CBS executive Hunt Stromberg talking about the ill-fated TV series “The Judy Garland Show” that aired on the network for one season in 1963/64.
Home movie footage: There are several clips of previously unseen color home movies, including a clip of Judy potty training baby Liza Minnelli! When Sid is quoted as saying that Judy had alabaster skin, you see it in these home movie clips.
Photos: As noted, there are quite a lot of very rare photos. Many of these are previously unseen delightful photos of Judy as a child. There are some rare photos of Judy’s parents, Frank and Ethel Gumm, before they started their family in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. In one telling photos we see Frank Gumm as a young man on the beach with another young man. As explained in the documentary Frank was known to have romantic relationships with men, and the photo appears to show just that.
Letters/Notes: Previously unseen handwritten notes that Judy wrote to Sid are a delight to see. It’s obvious via these notes that in spite of what we might think in hindsight, Judy truly did love Sid – even after they split.
The documentary flashbacks a few times to give context by showing Judy’s life and career before her marriage to Sid, as well as Sid’s early years in Hollywood and first marriage to actress Lynn Bari. This gives us a good understanding of the whys and wherefores of the dynamics of their complicated relationship and actions. Very well done!
Kijak tastefully presents Judy’s complicated relationships with her father and mother, Frank and Ethel Gumm. The loss of her father just after she signed her first contract with MGM at the age of thirteen and stating that at the time she felt she had lost the only person who was on her side, is especially touching. Also touching is the falling out between Judy and her mother, coming after we see home movie footage taken of the two of them just a few years prior, at Judy’s home in Hollywood, seeming like pals as they gardened together.
Sid & Judy’s passion project, her 1954 film comeback A Star Is Born, is given ample time during which editor Claire Didier expertly presents the various takes of “The Man That Got Away” side by side (about four at once at one point) that show Judy’s brilliance in singing along to her own pre-recorded voice with equal intensity throughout many takes.
Passages from the “Judy and I” and other sources are read by actor John Hamm (of “Mad Men” fame) standing in for Sid, with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh reading Judy’s words. They were a perfect choice. Interspersed with actual recordings of Sid & Judy, they present the couple’s relationship as never before. What comes through is the fact that in spite of their ups and downs, Sid & Judy truly loved each other great passion and affection.
Kijak doesn’t shy away from Judy’s well documented (and often misunderstood) drug dependency, but it’s not presented in the usual tabloid manner that’s become so stereotyped. Kijak shows how Judy became addicted, of which the ramifications and subsequent issues are addressed. There is one telling segment in which Sid explains the lengths that Judy went to in order to hide the pills she was procuring behind his back and her unsuccessful attempts at going to Alcoholics Anonymous and the newly formed Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Unlike today, addiction to narcotics was misunderstood, literally hidden in the shadows, and that’s explained here.
The most effective highlights of the documentary are the clips of Judy’s various television appearances, including her television series, “The Judy Garland Show.” On that huge screen, the clips are devastatingly great. Many times TV clips don’t play well on the big screen but Judy’s genius overcomes that. The entire theater burst into applause and cheers after the famous duet with Barbra Streisand. When Judy was featured performing “I Can’t Give Anything But Love” you could hear a pin drop. Likewise the 1955 TV performance of “Over the Rainbow.” The colorized “Old Man River” almost did us all in, coming at the end of the documentary after we saw Judy’s sad decline, her death, and subsequent funeral.
The use of some of the infamous “Judy Speaks” recordings might raise a few eyebrows, but in the context of coming on the heels of Judy being shown to have been taken to the cleaners by her business managers, and how she was treated by CBS, her anger is justified. This is the first time that I have seen any of the content of these tapes used sensibly.
Overall, Sid & Judy is a worthy addition to the list of the best Judy Garland documentaries. For the first time, we get a thought-provoking documentary about one of the most well-known and fascinating relationships in Hollywood history. There are a couple of minor quibbles that some of us more hardcore fans might have, but those in no way hinder the enjoyment of the film nor its excellence.
Fifty years after her untimely death in 1969 at age 47, Judy Garland still has the power to mesmerize and move a movie audience like no other performer ever has – and probably never will again.
Sid & Judy will next be screened at “Outfest” in Los Angeles on July 27th. It will premiere on TV on the Showtime channel and app this fall.
A special thanks to Mike Siewert for providing the screenshot and rare photos seen above.
© 2019 Scott Brogan, Judy Garland News & Events
A Showtime film
Directed by Stephen Kijak
Written by Claire Didier & Stephen Kijak
Producers: John Battsek & Diane Becker
Executive Producers: Joel Gotler, John Kimbell, Bryan O’Connell, Philip Sandhaus, Eric Skinner
Associate Producer: Carolyne Jurriaans
Editor: Claire Didier
Archival Researcher: Christine Melton
Archival Producer: Adele Sparks
Featuring material from the collections of Michael Siewert and Joe Luft, plus passages from Sid Luft’s autobiographical papers.