Most people who have heard, would think that perhaps it is a bit of a lark that they would make a movie about the ‘world’s worst singer’. However acclaimed director Stephen Frears seems to play no wrong notes at all as he presents the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a tale of self-delusion and devotion well worth the telling.
Compassionate, touching and compelling, this is a comedic period drama which hits its high notes with joy. Add into the equation two marvellous actors multiple Academy Award winning Meryl Streep, and the very debonair British gentleman Hugh Grant, who said he would never make a movie again, and you have a true gem, one that cannot help make you smile and cry at the same time.
When is a voice good enough to be revealed in public? American socialite and amateur operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) spent much of her adult life singing ‘off key’ to the posh members of the elite ‘Verdi Club’, which she established in New York. They were not only very enthusiastic and encouraging, but also positively lavish in their praise and affectionate support for their founder.
Her performances of technically challenging works for a coloratura soprano were presented in small salons, recital halls and the Ritz-Carlton ballroom between the two world wars of the twentieth century, and she became amazingly popular for the amusement she unwittingly provided.
Her enthusiasts adored her as she dressed up, wearing fabulous white wings made of feathers when presented as an ‘Angel of Inspiration’ flying over the heads of all the other players on the stage. Alternatively she wears a wig and armour as one of the legendary Valkyries from the opera Die Walküre by German composer Richard Wagner.
Florence Foster Jenkins is certainly a generous patron for young musicians.
They all line up at her door to enjoy a chance to play for her.
Her final personally chosen piano accompanist for her finale performance is Cosme McMoon, who played her favourite tune ‘The Swan’ so deliciously in the audition he was hired on the spot.
Comedic actor Simon Helberg, whose big moony eyes and fabulous playing is just perfect as a foil for Florence – he very nearly steals the show!
Cosme’s need for funds in a very competitive New York straight after the war, is paramount in his mind that is until he hears Florence sing, then he has doubts.
It is hard when you are virtually starving to not accept such a very generous salary offer.
Soothing his own soul and conscience, Cosme takes the money and spends the rest of his time worrying about his and her reputation.
After all St Clair Bayfield her husband has reassured him that she only sings in private anyway, and that her many acquaintances will take him to their hearts.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a role made in heaven for actor Meryl Streep – she revels in her extraordinary reality, providing a wonderful performance.
Having proved to us all in Mamma Mia, and Ricky and the Flash that she can really sing, Meryl bravely takes on Florence’s voice herself, stunning us all with its extraordinary ‘reality’.
Cosme McMoon has to constantly adjust his accompaniment to cope with his patrons many mistakes, as she tackles songs that do not flatter but only serve to reveal her deficiencies as a singer.
Florence has throughout her lifetime since she was born in 1868, loved music and has performed as a singer since as a teenager, she sang for the President at the White House.
Her British Shakespearean actor ‘husband’ St Clair Bayfield, also her agent, has spent their life together ensuring no one will ever reveal how awful she truly is by paying off her detractors and having her only sing privately to those who just adore her for trying.
She is all at once ridiculous and touching at the same time and it’s extremely hard not to be entirely charmed by this story about the events that take place in her last year on stage, including standing up to be counted on the famous Carnegie Hall Stage, which holds 3000+ people.
Didn’t think that I would ever say this, but Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant together are truly wonderful. Despite their ‘ageing’ qualities they are more than harmonious.
Passionate love always seems to be for the young until this movie, where this delicious pairing provides a quality of connection and an electrifying chemistry between actors of a certain age, one not normally expected at the box office.
Their experience and maturity helps them meld together like a famous old wine of great complexity, which in the end is so simply wonderful to enjoy it takes us by surprise such is the depth, breadth and intensity of our personal experience
Florence married her first husband Dr Frank Thornton Jenkins in the silliness of youth and as a reaction to her father refusing to let her study music. To spite him she elopes with a man who very soon left her with an awful legacy; a body riddled with syphilis.
This would have been a death sentence at the time, and it has ruined Florence’s personal life to a degree, as she has been required to take medication her whole life, which has caused many problems and side effects.
Streep and Grant are entirely convincing as such a loving couple living a very strange but happy life. He without any chance of enjoying a fulfilling life with the wife he clearly loves, and she without being able to give him the child she longs for.
Every night after reciting to her so that she can drop off to sleep, he attends to her lovingly before leaving the apartment to drive downtown to his flat, that she pays for, where his other de facto ‘wife’ lives much of her life without him.
Florence’s wealth allows her to live in great comfort in the surrounds of the Hotel Seymour in New York, where she’s waited on hand and foot and where she receives music lessons from the music teacher from the Metropolitan Opera Carlo Edwards, played so convincingly by David Haig.
By 1944 the last year of her life when we meet all those involved in it, Florence Foster Jenkins has confounded the medical establishment by surviving for so long.
Audiences to her concerts thanks to her agent and loving husband were by invitation only, and until her final performance at Carnegie Hall no professional music critics were ever invited to review her shows.
All the favourable articles and bland reviews in musical publications were most likely written by friends.
When a critic from The Post infiltrates her final concert and writes an unfavourable review, St Clair Bayfield and Cosme McMoon visit all the newsstands within two blocks, buying them up and throwing them away so she won’t be hurt.
Despite their best efforts however, Florence finds out that she has been billed as ‘the worst singer in the world’ and it brings her undone, unable to cope with being exposed to such ridicule.
Ms Streep as well as her angel’s wings had to don a ‘fat suit’ to provide the silhouette required. She uses her own voice to ultimately break our hearts, allowing us to feel great affection for Florence Foster Jenkins all the way to the end.
The wonderful postscript to the story is that the vinyl record Florence had made by Meotone Recording Studio of the songs sung at her Carnegie Hall concert accompanied by Cosme McMoon, has for many years been their shop’s best selling recording of all time.
Today Florence Foster Jenkins is a You Tube sensation and you would have to have a hard heart, not to engage with her story.
Her virtues far outweigh everything else and with classy star performances all around, this portrait of devotion and denial is a very entertaining and entirely grand experience.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
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