Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins:
The Joy of Singing Badly

"She felt such joy in music," Meryl Streep said about the title character in her latest movie Florence Foster Jenkins. "And she was so determined to get -- it -- right" -- Streep's voice slipping into character -- "and she's so thrilled when she does, she goes completely off the rails."

Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears make sure we see the aging heiress's whole-hearted enthusiasm for music and her generosity to others before we hear her sing a note.   Jenkins performs, misty-eyed, in pantomime tableaux for adoring members of the "Verdi Society."  Weeping at a recital, she is moved to renew her voice lessons, hoping to emulate the soprano's pure expressive voice.

Only after all that, and after mild-mannered pianist Cozme McMoon (played by Simon Helberg) vanquishes a roomful of aggressive musicians for the job of accompanying her lessons, do Martin and Frears let Jenkins sing.  When it happens, we and McMoon are hearing her for the first time: something like the howling of a cat, turning sometimes into a screech, a bark, or a moan sliding up just shy of the right note.  On Helberg's face, we see his polite, confident smile vie with shock, shading into dismay as he hears the vocal coach praise the sound, and sees Jenkins' husband-agent St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) nod and smile encouragement to his adored wife.  Bayfield's eyes catch McMoon's with a look that says, "Isn't she marvelous? And if you don't think so, you wouldn't dare say otherwise, right?"  For her part, Streep as Jenkins sings, wide-eyed with terror and excitement, as she hurls herself at challenges of the song.  She looks like an old girl exhilarated in her first time riding a horse at gallop.  

It's a great scene that gets us laughing, cringing, and crying all at the same time. 

The rest of the movie enriches that situation with back story, and carries us forward to a crisis when Jenkins is moved by gratitude to perform for 1000 young servicemen in a free concert at Carnegie Hall.  Bayfield's efforts to bribe and threaten critics won't be enough to protect the vulnerable diva, and McMoon fears that his reputation will never recover from the debacle-to-come. 

As a middle school teacher in the arts, I know what it's like to sit with a hundred parents who overlook the mistakes to encourage children who are living a dream. I've been that child on stage, singing flat but loud -- in tights!  Besides, as Streep observed to interviewer Terry Gross on Fresh Air, we all sound good to ourselves in the shower. It's a unique movie about a special woman in a time long-gone, but we can all find ourselves in this story.

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