Many gay men of the Stonewall generation worshipped the ground Judy Garland walked on, fully aware of the fact that it was littered with empty prescription bottles. Garland—perhaps the very first human being to transmogrify into pure camp before an adoring and judgmental public, though clearly not the last—became an icon through her indomitableness, her boozy courage in decline, and her occasional grace under duress. The queens who took note of this quality, and who nourished it through ritual and oral tradition, are the people we have to thank for the canonization of Garland’s superb 1964 document Judy at Carnegie Hall. Who else could have kept it on the pop charts for 95 weeks even while its star self-destructed?
It’s also fair to credit these fore-fairies with inspiring the winkingly reverent, every-note-in-place, song-for-song celebration of Garland’s original that Rufus Wainwright—himself no stranger to the tempests and temptations of celebrity—presented to sold-out madhouses of gay glitterati at Carnegie Hall this summer. Without their single-hearted devotion to the legend of Judy to prove himself against, Wainwright’s take on this song-cycle wouldn’t seem nearly so audacious. That Wainwright has the temerity to cover such a bona fide classic—and the chops to pull it off without breaking a limb or his brain—speaks both to his ambition and to his prodigious abilities. The album recording of the concert also reveals a slyly playful critical facility—a seeming intention to make even his choice of projects into a pomo game that illuminates both artist and subject. It’s all there in the title: Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. Take that, anxiety of influence! Camp in a landslide!
Except…not, since a close listen to Wainwright’s concert reveals an artistic endeavor of surprising seriousness. Sure, fans might cackle about the delicious irony of famed (and to be fair, recovered) Fire Island disaster and crack-pipe-alley diarist Rufus doing his best impression of music’s most fabulous pill-popper. But the reverence and respect he displays here is no joke, even if said reverence sometimes verges on camp, such as in the banter that follows “Almost Like Being in Love,” where he admits, “I’m going to speak now, because on the album Judy speaks here. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Dorothy.” While Wainwright provocatively toes the line between celebration and mockery, he never crosses it.
The impulse to follow the cues of Garland’s command performance carries over to other aspects of the album, particularly the orchestral arrangements, which mostly faithfully replicate the original. Though this approach might sound uninspired, modern production values and a crack squad of musicians help to subtly improve on Garland’s established framework—the wistful guitar solo on Wainwright’s version of standout “How Long Has This Been Going On” is a prime example—while acclaiming its excellence by virtue of keeping it mostly in place.
One of the byproducts—or perhaps the whole point—of this formally purist approach is to isolate Wainwright’s vocal performances, and thereby heighten his stakes. The songs in Garland’s set are, nearly without exception, classics of the American songbook of celebration and loss, a set of kaleidoscopically refracting emotions and paces that represents a deeply technical challenge for a pop singer. Further, they’re the songs under whose shadow Wainwright has labored throughout his career as a songwriter. By turns baroque, jazzy, morose, and enraptured, they’re a perfect opportunity for Wainwright to showcase his capacity as a singer in terms of tone and melodic emphasis. And showcase he does, deploying his dulcet foghorn of a voice with subtlety, grace, and elasticity. The facility Wainwright displays through the whipcrack runs of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” makes you wonder why he so seldom picks up the pace in his solo work. His reading of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that national anthem of gayness, hackneyed and haggard yet still overwhelming, does everyone involved justice, which is really saying an awful lot.
In places, the challenges of the program test the limits of Wainwright’s range (his problem with the brassy high notes in an otherwise energetic take on “That’s Entertainment” is a notable issue), but it would be unfair to hold this against him. After all, Garland’s voice cracks at the beginning of her (obviously, otherwise transcendent) version of “Rainbow.” Ain’t nobody perfect. That’s what Judy, poor disastrously talented Judy, is supposed to teach us in the first place.