For many survivors of the pop cultural revolution of the 1950s and '60s, Judy Garland remains a kind of show-biz icon. Even more so than Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Perhaps it is because, more than any of the others, she exuded a kind of heartbreaking, ``I-gave-my-all, now-show-me-how-you-appreciate-it'' vulnerability which she incorporated into her unique talent. Judy was obsessed with the need to be loved . . . by her friends, business associates, family, and, mostly, her audiences.
And now, as memories of drugs and dieting and mental breakdowns fade into pop history, comes a celebratory ``Great Performance'' special, Judy Garland: The Concert Years (PBS, Friday, March 22, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). It is a totally adoring tribute, prepared by those who would pay obeisance to the pure artistry of the woman without dwelling on her problems. ``The road wasn't always a smooth one'' is about as deep as the character analysis goes.
But who cares! Enough has been written about the dark side of Judy; producers David Heeley and Joan Kramer concentrate almost completely on the bright side. In addition to soaring songs, daughter Lorna offers loving narration, and husband Sid Luft and son Joey contribute recollections of Judy. Although there is a film clip in which Liza Minnelli appears on stage with her mother, only the other two children are used in the commentary. It is clear that, whatever else she was, Judy was above all a marvelous mother who adored her children and who is still adored by them.
``Judy'' concentrates on the happy Judy, the svelte Judy, the maternal Judy, and only hints that there was another, disturbed Judy. Most of the film and tape footage -- featuring Judy singing 36 songs -- is from TV series, TV specials, and theatrical concerts. There are splendid, forgotten duets with Ethel Merman, Lena Horne, and Barbra Streisand as well as with daughter Liza. And there is even an odd film clip of a number originally intended for ``A Star Is Born'' but never shown. There's no stereo, and the sound, for the most part, is only as good as the sound of that period. But it still comes across as vintage Garland.
For me, the highlight comes at the very end, in an enchanted film clip from one of her live performances. After a number in which she is dressed in rags and wears beard makeup, she sits down on stage, without changing costume, and simply starts to sing ``Over the Rainbow.'' She takes total control little by little and suddenly you find yourself forgetting the beard and the mustache, completely enraptured by the song, the emotion, the woman.
``Judy Garland: The Concert Years'' is not the definitive TV biography of Judy -- the ugliness and the tell-allness have been mercifully excised. There's no speculation about what ``they'' did to her, no railing at the ``me'' generation philosophy which some people believe she symbolized. What emerges is simply a glorious Judy Garland sampler. Watch it and savor something rare these days -- a superb talent at work.