Florence Foster Jenkins

“Music is my life” – Florence Foster Jenkins

Contrary to what you might suppose, Florence Foster Jenkins is not merely a film about a woman who did not sing very well, but a commentary on the perversity of relationships, on the capacity of human beings for self-deception, and of the power of the human spirit to defy expectations.  Where would we be in life without underdogs to prove the critics wrong, and they certainly couldn’t take it away from her – sing at Carnegie Hall she undoubtedly did!

This is primarily a comic drama biopic. Maybe it is a slight and insignificant film, like its subject, but also like its subject it has the ability to confound and delight in equal measure.  I say comic, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether we are laughing with or at Mrs Jenkins – of which more anon.  It is, of course, also a Stephen Frears vehicle for la Streep, the phenomenal actress who can metamorphose into any human form without the benefit of CGI, and here she brings FFJ to life.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy American socialite who lived for music, in spite of the crippling nerve damage caused by syphilis gained, so she claims in the script, on her wedding night, and compounded by mercury and arsenic treatments before penicillin was widely available.  She did indeed make and distribute recordings, and book the Carnegie Hall in which to perform with her shy and diffident accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg doing a fine job), confident in the belief that since nobody actually said a bad word to her face about her singing then it must be good and enjoyed by one and all.

Wikipedia says this on her musical talents:

From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch or rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Unfortunately, there was nothing McMoon could do to help conceal the glaring inaccuracy of Jenkins’ intonation: the notes she sang were consistently flat and their pitch deviated from the sheet music by as much as a semitone. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign languages, is also noteworthy. To make matters worse, the technically-challenging songs she performed (requiring levels of musical skill far beyond her ability and vocal range) served only to emphasise these deficiencies.

Despite the vocal and musical inaccuracies of her performances, which took place mostly at small salons or recital halls, Jenkins became popular for the amusement she unwittingly provided. Audience members sometimes described her technique in an “intentionally ambiguous” way that may have served to pique public curiosity; for example, “Her singing at its finest suggests the untrammeled swoop of some great bird.” Her audiences were by invitation only, and until her final performance at Carnegie Hall, no professional music critics ever reviewed her performances in the legitimate press. Favorable articles and bland reviews in musical publications, such as The Musical Courier, were most likely written by her friends, or herself.

Why were her friends and those close to her so loathe to tell Mrs Jenkins the truth?  Because it would destroy her, and she was at heart a generous and cheery soul who did not deserve to be trashed.  It would appear she takes the words of her singing teacher (the ever-popular David Haig), “There is work to do…. but you’ve never sung better,” to mean she is performing to a standard of objective excellence rather than the truth, which is that he is being polite to the woman who pays him through the nose.

She is certainly not told the truth by her common law husband, St Clair Bayfield, an actor, though by his own admission not a great one, who has become her manager and impresario.  In the person of Hugh Grant, Bayfield dedicates his life to protecting his wife’s reputation, while hiding from her that he maintained a sexual relationship on the side – since that knowledge would also destroy her.  Hypocrisy notwithstanding, he remained with her loyally, though the fact that she richly funded his lifestyle may have helped – including the apartment where he resides with his girlfriend and even hosts parties, in spite of Florence’s prohibitionesque detestation of alcohol and bad behaviour.

Grant seems a natural casting for the role of an English actor affecting an aristocratic bearing, since he has spent many years perfecting this niche.  However, shorn of the many irritating mannerisms that have dogged many of his appearances, he turns in a mature and competent performance, the sort that might make one veteran cameraman turn to another and say, “I always knew he ‘ad it in him.”  I’d like to see Grant play against type more often, though I suspect he will struggle to fight off the frightfully English middle class gentleman – but when he does it well then praise is undoubtedly due.  Grant was never better, and his Terpsichorean talents were never better displayed – way better than the dance he did in Love Actually!

But what can you say of Meryl?  She commands the stage, literally and metaphorically, though while this is a performance of depth and immense skill, it is her vocal talents that make the mark.  Streep can sing in tune, as witnessed in the otherwise unfortunate Mamma Mia!, and indeed in a rosy-tinted fantasy at the end of the film she sings note perfect.  To emulate the Jenkins voice does not require total tone deafness, but just to be flat by enough to signal to even the most tone deaf member of the audience that she got it wrong, then to go way off piste in the soaring high notes.

Singing this way is almost harder than doing it right.  The effects are startling, none more so than with the famous and spectacular Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute that I saw performed very recently.  The Streep/Jenkins version is no less startling, and arguably the funniest moment of the film, yet it brings the house down.  Maybe some of the audience think she is absurd, but Florence’s fans defend her to the death.  However, it is a slightly uncomfortable moment for us if we consider we have joined the war veterans and are mocking FFJ.

Dramatically, the most moving moment is when St Clair does his utmost to buy out every copy of The Post to prevent the one honest review reaching Florence’s eyes.  He fails when she seeks out a copy for herself; the effect virtually kills her, such is the impact of syphilis on her nervous system.  Is honesty always good?  Frears suggests not in this case, for the grand illusion vanishes with a pop and half a century of mythology evaporates as if it had never been there in the first place.

So yes, a slight movie, a soufflé, a pleasant distraction, but maybe a worthy monument to a woman who proved that you can do anything if you want it badly enough – and can gain access to the money to make it happen – and to the premier female acting talent of our generation.

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