While Hollywood turns its back on making films that involve real acting, preferring instead to concentrate on superhero franchises and special effects, the Europeans are thankfully still crafting intelligent fare, including the delightfully bittersweet FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
Based on the life of the famed, matronly socialite, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS takes the audience back to those pre-Autotune days of the 1930s and ’40s when singers either had to be good at what they did or they had to have lots of money. In the case of “Lady Florence” (Meryl Streep), it was the latter. An artiste from a very young age (she gave a piano recital to then US president Rutherford B. Hayes), Jenkins devoted her adult life to the arts, rubbing shoulders with the likes Arturo Toscanini, Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. In 1909, she met third-rate Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant), and the two entered into a non-traditional (for that time) relationship that lasted until her death in 1944. In 1917, she founded the Verdi Club in Manhattan, a social club of made up of other well-heeled music lovers, and installed herself as the organisation’s “President Soprano Hostess”. With Bayfield’s full support and active participation, she often staged extravagant tableaux vivants, which were very popular back in the day. She would also sing at private recitals that Bayfield would indulgently organise on her behalf. Tickets were very tightly controlled so that only her closest allies would be in attendance. So shrill was her singing voice though that Bayfield would have to bribe a few sympathetic music critics so that they would write glowing reviews of her performance in the press. Whether or not Jenkins knew she couldn’t sing well is up for debate but, if she did know, she didn’t care. She just loved singing and Bayfield loved making her happy. (She also kept him living in style, which included having a separate apartment in Brooklyn and a mistress on the side.)
Due to popular demand from her loyal friends, Jenkins decided to expand her audience. First, she cut a record, which became a huge best-seller based on its novelty value. Then, she booked herself into Carnegie Hall along with the young and curiously named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV’s THE BIG BANG THEORY), whom Bayfield had earlier hired to be her musical accompanist on the piano. No one was more surprised than McMoon when Jenkins sang her first few, glass-shattering notes during their rehearsals but he quickly understood that this was an earnest woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly… plus he was getting paid extremely well and given the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, something that most musicians only dream of doing.
There’s a reason why Streep is the most-nominated actor in Academy Awards history. Like Florence herself, Streep throws herself voice-first into the role. She is a delight and it wouldn’t surprise me if she earns herself a 20th Oscar nomination for her efforts. It couldn’t have been easy to sing so badly so well. Streep said in an interview that she had to learn the correct notes and then come in just under or over them. Grant does wonderful work too, possibly giving us his best performance in years. There’s a scene where he’s jitterbugging and his charisma just shines through. Helberg is also a pleasure to watch as the wimpy McMoon who puts his pride aside to support his friend. I look forward to seeing more from him on the big screen. (McMoon’s story is also worthy of film treatment.)
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is an all-round, crowd-pleasing film that reminds all of us to follow our passions. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve seen so far this year. Go hear it… er, see it.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 31:00.)
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