The documentarian loves music, enough so that he’s based almost all of his documentary films around musical figures, ranging from the Stones to the Backstreet Boys. His latest feature, Sid & Judy finds him wading into unfamiliar territory: the life of Judy Garland, and the tumultuous marriage to her husband and sometime manager, Sid Luft.
For Kijak, the film represents an odd kind of homecoming. As an out-gay man, his chronicle of Garland & Luft also reexamines the popularity of the singer/actress among queer people and why, 50 years after her death, Garland ranks as the mother of all gay icons. Featuring John Hamm & Jennifer Jason Leigh reading the private writings of Garland and Luft, and with never before heard audio, the film reconstructs a picture of two people in love…and locked in battle with fierce demons.
Queerty chatted with Kijak about the film, Garland’s legacy and his career ahead of the release of the new film. Sid & Judy airs on Showtime October 18.
This is your 9th film, so congratulations. But Judy Garland is a long way from the Rolling Stones or Lynyrd Skynyrd. How did you pick Judy & Sid as your film?
Well, I mean, it’s a far cry and its not. They’re all icons in a certain degree: larger than life figures with epic, almost mythological stories. It’s been a privileged place to be in terms of storytelling to have all these musical icons to play with. It’s been great.
For the last couple of films, I’m not necessarily chasing them. Opportunities are being presented to me and I’m following things and learning about these subjects, sometimes with my audience. I wasn’t a big Skynnard fan at all, and now I’m an obsessive devotee. With Judy, it was more a case of a relationship with the management of The Sid Luft Trust.
It’s probably the only well-organized estate with exploitable assets relating to Judy, ya know? They have the rights to the TV show. They have photographs, recordings, family albums, all that stuff. I think they have The Judy, Frank & Dean show from Ford Star Jubilee. They have stuff. And there was a level of it that had not been exposed in the public as well as, at the time, an unpublished Sid Luft memoir. So for us as documentary filmmakers it was a great set of assets. And, you know, the story hadn’t been told in a while, and this story hadn’t really been told at all except in various biographies. It was really a great opportunity. There was a real appetite in the marketplace for it; we set it up really fast. It’s exciting to get a really quick green light. And again, it provided a really nice frame to examine her and her story. It’s inside a relationship of one of our great legends of stage and screen in an intimate and personal way that you maybe haven’t had access to before.
Well, and you make the point in the film, though those of us who know Hollywood lore or who were big Judy Garland fans already figured out: her marriage to Sid Luft was always something of an enigma. It had such highs and lows. How much did you know about Judy & Sid going in?
I only knew a little bit about Judy. I knew nothing about Sid and Judy. When my manager said “I’m working with the Sid Luft Trust,” I was like, who?
Oh, the straight guy she married! So not a lot. I grew up in a Streisand household. My mom…it was Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand all the way. Judy was not on her playlist for some reason. So I didn’t even have the growing-up-with-it background. Then when I became a young music-loving queer kid, my divas were Debbie Harry and Siouxie Sioux. I’m an 80s kid. So you almost had a kickback to Judy: oh, that’s old, I don’t understand, I don’t relate. But of course, as you get older, especially making the kinds of films I make, it’s historical, musicological, excavation. You start to look at the connections and you find the common threads. It honestly comes down to a magnificent voice and just the power and intensity of her as a performer. There’s no getting around that.
Too true. Was the family involved? Her kids Liza, Lorna or Joe…
No. Joe is part of the trust. Lorna I think technically is, but Lorna and Sid didn’t see eye to eye. Liza’s not part of it and doesn’t really talk about her mom. Hence, the use of archival stuff. It was more about keeping it locked into a certain kind of point of view within the time frame of the story so everybody had a real time specific experience. There’s very little contemporary interview we’ve created. We really kept the frame very strict.
In that way, it helps. The only other really in-depth examination of the Judy-Sid relationship I know of was in Lorna’s book Me and My Shadows, and the subsequent TV movie with Judy Davis from the early 2000s. That movie was also attacked for whitewashing their relationship. You have a more objective look.
Well yeah. We’re using Sid’s words, so take it or leave it. We have, thankfully, tons of Judy’s own autobiography recordings and Sid secretly taping phone calls with studio executives. So we’ve got the evidence. If we’d adhered too closely to the actual narrative, there were so many more lows we could have gone into. But you also don’t want to destroy your audience. It can be a very dark story, but balance was something we were very conscious of.
And let it be said, those audio recordings might be the most shocking part of this whole film. They are very shocking, just in that they exist. This was something that Sid & Judy never thought would ever get consumed by the public, so it does have this voyeuristic quality to it. Along those same lines, did you find yourself having to tone down their behaviors? Sid Luft, it’s fair to say was a gambling addict and alcoholic. Judy had just about every substance problem imaginable.
That’s what I was getting at. We had to choose representative traumas, if you will. [Judy] slashed at herself numerous times over her life. But we try to present them in context: the attempted suicide at MGM, her own commentary is I just caused a scene. But the postpartum depression suicide attempt, which was a lot more serious, was not, if I’m not mistaken, had only been recorded in the Judy biography by Gerald Frank, as well as in Sid’s own autobiography. It was something that was kept out of the press, and that it was a family matter. But she talks about in her own autobiography recordings. So you can see the levels to which she’d occasionally sink. If we’d put too many of those brushstrokes in there, it would have weighed the movie down so much. We were like look, here are her problems. They are a litany of trauma and tragedy, but we do also want to be blown away, inspired and excited by her talent. So that was the balance on that. It was almost the reverse with Sid. In early cuts, he almost came off too much like a good guy, like what a swell chap.
He’s not going to tell you that he’s an alcoholic and a gambling addict. It was up to us to find a counterpoint. The more we dug through those recordings, you’d find little tidbits. In one of those recordings he actually says “Maybe it was me. Maybe I mixed her up.” Then there was a rare call with an actor that we think maybe Judy had an affair with. And [Sid] is on the phone with the guy, and the guy is like “Judy told me you stole all her money.” It’s like, oh, there it is. There’s his reputation right before you. And he admits to his horrible behavior when she was pregant and he didn’t go with her for an abortion. We wanted to put that stuff in there. But we wanted to counterpoint and balance it while telling an engaging and entertaining story. It’s a lot. I always say this is a Judy Garland story, not the Judy Garland story. There are so many stories; this is one among many.
So, now having made the film, do you think Sid was good for her? Was he bad in the long run? He did lose all her money, but he also tried to get her clean and steady her while they were together.
I mean, I don’t think I can come down on either side of that. It’s so complicated. They were good and bad for each other simultaneously. They were good and bad for each other and probably for themselves as well.
Judy had problems. Was she complicit in them? Some, probably, yeah. That’s the thing: there’s no black or white with this. It’s all gray area. They were deeply in love and would fight like cats and dogs. They also had a very passionate relationship, so it was extreme, but she was an extreme character.
I always call her Jennifer Genius Leigh. I just think she is one of our greatest actresses.
She is. One of the most underrated.
I love her so much. There was the relationship with her and Showtime, so that had already been in discussions. Hamm was just…when I read the Sid Luft memoir, I just thought John Hamm would be great. Just the tone, the style, the era, you know? Not that we wanted Don Draper doing Sid Luft, but there’s something about him. He’s just an iconic, classy guy. He was perfect. And first thought, best thought sometimes. Luckily, he wanted to do it. And we were thrilled.
Obviously, you already mentioned, and the film focuses at several points on Judy as a gay icon. Possibly the gay icon. But what you say about age is interesting. I’m more of a 90s-2000s kid. My divas were Courtney Love and Alanis Morissette.
The point being, I and a lot of guys my age like Judy, but we don’t obsess over her. I don’t listen to her music much, but I’d never deny she’s a gay icon. So this is a two-part question. Where does that icon status come from? Why’s she a gay icon? And why does that seem to be confined to a certain generation of people? It’s like it’s true but not true in the way it once was.
Well yeah. Google it. You’ll find all sorts of crazy articles and think pieces on Judy and gays. I’m not joking; it’s interesting to read. We had articles from magazines in the 80s, whole, multiple page academic pieces on it. It’s been written about a lot. I don’t claim to be an authority on it, but it’s what you might expect at the time: a strong woman, kind of unlucky in love, rising like a phoenix. The cycles of tragedy and triumph. The gauze of Hollywood glamour. Why do gays love Joan Crawford?
I’ve always wondered.
Exactly. But Judy checked way more boxes consistently. Just “Over the Rainbow” in an of itself—the iconography, the message in the song. If you think about a gay kid in the 40s or the 50s hearing that there’s this magical world over there, but why can’t I get there? There’s a rainbow-colored fantasy land but I’m stuck in this sh*thole?
If she can do it, maybe I can do it. It represented so many dreams and fantasies and struggles that parallel each other. Like Piaf—another icon, very, very similar.
Very much so.
Short in stature, troubled, full of life. Success when she was young. Powerful voice. It’s just the transmission of pure emotion. I think there’s something chemical about it. It’s intangible. It’s so fascinating. As for the generational aspect…there are a couple shots in the film from Montreal Pride. That’s where I interviewed Ms. Major Griffin-Gracy, the great trans activist and Judy Garland fan. She was Grand Marshall of Montreal Pride, so the idea was that it would be fun to have some Judy drag queens just following her down the street. I gotta say, the drag queens we found who jumped on it were all 20-somethings. It wasn’t like they were all going to do Dorothy either. It was like I’ve got the ‘Get Happy’ outfit. And oh, can I do “Man that Got Away.” They had all the outfits, and I’m like you’re 20. How on Earth? For drag queens it gets passed down. It’s in the cultural DNA. It’s not as prominent as it must have been in the 50s, 60s, 70s even. Look, times change, music changes. It’s all about popular culture, and she was popular culture once upon a time. But it still permeates. And now Renee Zellweger is going to take her to the Oscars.
I was going to say, this is part of a Judyssance. You’re coming out with this at the perfect time.
My whole team and I are trying to figure out a time to all go together [to see Judy]. We’re going to sneak a bottle of Blue Nun and just cheer her on. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m dying to
That’s awesome. Now I have to wonder, does being a gay icon hinder her in some ways? In other words, do you think the mainstream sort of writes her off because of her association with the community?
That’s a hard question. I don’t really know. What’s odd is just the timing of our release of the film, we debuted at Frameline, which was brilliant. In Europe, we’re debuting at the London International Film Festival. Just given the timing, we just wanted to start getting it out there and generating word of mouth. Summertime is the gay film festivals, so why not go right over the rainbow? But it’s just playing the gay festivals in the states. That’s not a bad thing. But like you said, I feel like she isn’t niche. [Sid & Judy is] not necessarily a gay film—though she’s one of the patron saints of queers—but her fanbase was all of culture. When she was at her peak, the gay audience was more underground. Even at Carnegie Hall, she wasn’t as much of a gay icon as she would become later through time. So I don’t know. She towered over culture at one point, and she’s still kind of above that. I think just breaking that perception in some way, that’s why we presented the film we did. It’s the story of a relationship, but she was so much more important [than just her gay iconhood]. I don’t want it to sound backhanded, but maybe it did.
So what’s next for you?
Movie #10 is a few weeks away from being picture locked. I did shoot a narrative for the first time since I was like 25 based on the music of The Smiths. So I’m going right back to my 80s obsession. It’s called Shoplifters of the World. It’s a New Wave American Graffiti.
Sid & Judy airs on Showtime October 18.