The Rise of the Feminist Musical Drama: 'Judy' and Other Films Spotlight Talent Over Romance

Donald Stahl/Gunpowder & Sky; Courtesy of Roadside Attractions; Courtesy of Neon; Adobe Stock

'Wild Rose' and 'Her Smell' are among a group of this year's contenders that focus on "dissecting the triumphs and torments of talent," rather than the lead's romantic interests.

Judy Garland's life story is so notorious that author Jacqueline Susann cribbed it and former child star Lindsay Lohan relived it. The chanteuse was plucked from vaudeville obscurity as a child and processed through the Hollywood abattoir, commanded to lose weight, work herself sick, sing like an angel, maintain a pristine "girl next door" persona and rely on pills to pump or zap her energy at will. Audiences are witness to the harrowing lifelong effects of these early traumas in biographical drama Judy.

The Renée Zellweger vehicle is the kind of hagiographic musical biopic the Academy gobbles up — full of dueling compassion and voyeurism, the looming phantom of death, emotional manipulation, relentless drug use and gutting flashbacks. (It's classic Oscar bait that biopic satire Walk Hard nearly decimated, yet Judy still remains wildly watchable thanks to Zellweger's indefatigable vigor.)

Judy is just one of multiple recent films about female musicians pounding their way through stardom. In the past year alone, such movies as A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, Teen Spirit, I Am Woman, Her Smell, Wild Rose and Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé have asked viewers to empathize with the physical and psychological sacrifices their pop diva subjects make for a taste of fame. Post-#MeToo, these stories reflect a cultural shift in how we gender genius, dysfunction and ambition.

Fifty years after Garland's death by barbiturate overdose, Oscar contender Judy highlights the poisonous tendrils of an industry that exploits young women's vulnerability and often leaves them to rot. The Academy has a long history of honoring actresses for embodying the tumultuous lives of larger-than-life singers: Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl; Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line; Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose; Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter; Angela Bassett in What's Love Got to Do With It; Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues; Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams; Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow; Bette Midler in The Rose; Lady Gaga in 2018's A Star Is Born; and, of course, Garland herself in 1954's A Star Is Born.

By comparison, the female-fronted musical dramas of the past 12 months more heavily showcase the systemic struggles of women in the entertainment industry than many of these older films. Instead of solely focusing the drama on one difficult man at the center of their protagonists' lives, they also visibly highlight the costs of sexual harassment, physical perfection and a 24/7 work schedule, especially for working mothers.

Zellweger may be the actress to beat at the 92nd Academy Awards, but Oscar voters also should consider the transcendent lead musical performances in summer films Her Smell and Wild Rose, which, like Judy, also feature antiheroic singers wrestling with the relationships they're willing to surrender while in pursuit of their art.

In the fictional Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss plays the volcanic lead singer of a cult '90s-era Riot Grrrl band whose seething charisma and venomous ego nearly destroy the people closest to her. Moss' glittered and smudged Becky Something is pure centripetal force, commanding the orbital movements of her fed-up bandmates, frustrated ex, desperate manager and impressionable young daughter. She's simultaneously a Courtney Love-esque punk goddess and a Shakespearean monarch, her hubris and addictions slowly edging her off the abyss.

Drugs and motherhood have a completely different impact on the life of Wild Rose's Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a lovably lacerating Scottish convict and country music singer who secretly dreams of abandoning her two young children for Nashville. Following a stint in prison for drug smuggling, Rose-Lynn reluctantly returns home to Glasgow, forced to contend with the practicalities of parenthood as a low-wage worker while also chasing her gift to glory. It's a star-making turn for Irish singer-actress Buckley, who imbues Rose-Lynn with rough-hewn vitality.

Judy, Her Smell and Wild Rose are all redemption tales about women battling their flaws while also facing down the conflicts between artistry and motherhood. Unlike many of the historical films of this genre, these stories are not overly invested in romance as much as they're invested in dissecting the triumphs and torments of talent. And quite possibly, no recent film better exemplifies these triumphs than Beyoncé's best documentary feature hopeful Homecoming, which vivisects the commitment required to be a modern-day pop legend.

The rise of these feminist stories is changing the rules of the typical musical drama-biopic, which often exalts a "tortured" male genius bulldozing his way through the world for the sake of his voice. (Think last Oscar season's juggernaut Bohemian Rhapsody or 2019's spritely awards aspirant Rocketman.) Hollywood so often positions women as the muses, nurturers and caretakers of these men that this recent influx feels like a rebirth of the genre: An opportunity to witness the toll performing takes on women's bodies, specifically, and to question why the status of "wife" or "mother" is so prominent when "husband" or "father" is rarely on our minds when watching movies about male musicians. Watching female leads wrestle with their art, attempt to slough off their vices and find that guttural sound inside them is an emboldening sight.

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.