Male and Female
The setting is New York right within the peak of World War II. A couple takes the stage together at the Verdi Club, one unknowingly bad at acting and one unknowingly bad at singing. St. Clair Bayfield has supported his operatic wife for years, doing what he can to help her follow her dreams of commanding the opera house. Florence Foster Jenkins has no idea that her singing voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard, so she commits her life to fulfilling the same emotion she feels whenever listening to the virtuous sounds of the opera. In particular though, she would rather start now rather than later in achieving her dream, as she’s already fifty years into a delicate case of Syphilis, death always following her wherever she goes.
Therefore, the couple hires a nervous yet eager new pianist to help make her grand entrance back to the stage, appealing to all the high-class music enthusiasts in New York. She still doesn’t know the truth about her voice, as it’s so wretched that everybody loves it.
Meryl Streep takes the stage as the title role in what appears to be yet another Oscar nomination for the versatile actress. She is so joyfully giddy, so blissfully confident with her voice, so theatrical, and so comedic, that she appears made for the stage. What’s even better about her role is the way she acutely matches the dying animal sounds which originally came out of the original Jenkins’ mouth. Her singing is everywhere: up, down, left, right, sideways, upside-down, all directions that will easily generate the hardest laughs of the summer. She’s truly the best bad singer you’ll ever hear.
It’s amazing how this movie is not the typical mainstream feature expected to make much of any money over the summer, and yet it is so much more clean and relatable in its humor than that repulsively pointless Sausage Party.
None of the comedy in Florence Foster Jenkins goes too far, it’s all in the little subtle things such as a fast pianist or ways to store potato salad for an enormous number of guests. Then it all erupts as a vocal coach struggles in his lessons to help Florence sound her most angelic. Soon everyone reacts to her voice the same way the audience does: with laughs ranging from slight chuckling in the elevator to losing breath at a concert. The jokes are all in the humanity of the circumstances, which is precisely where comedy should naturally come from.
The best part is, it pays off in the end. Florence makes a deal with the soldiers fighting in the war that she will use her concert at Carnegie Hall to make large donations to benefit their service. She believes that these soldiers need to feel joy, which can most tangibly be felt through music. Anticipation builds before she takes the stage, and anticipation builds even more as her husband later has to hide the NY Post from her, so that she won’t be discouraged by their review.
I love the drama within this humorous historical concept, but I have one complaint about it all: by the third act, we’re supposed to feel bad for her that she’s mocked for her singing voice, even though the first and second acts were filled with us specifically being manipulated to laugh at the same thing. Then in the end, we learn of her legacy because of her awful singing that brought laughter to generations. I wish that Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (The Grifters, The Queen) would make up his mind on how we’re supposed to feel.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter all that much. This cinematic retelling of the worst opera singer in the world is guaranteed to bring joy and inspiration to everyone who feels lost in our miserable time. If Florence believed that music can enlighten the world, then maybe it can still do the same today.
Florence Foster Jenkins has for decades been to opera what Ed Wood has been to movies: she’s the worst at what she loves to do, but still develops a cult following who love her in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way.
But I have one question that I would like for us all to think about: is creating something “so bad it’s good” something to be proud of?
There’s no real easy question to this, as the answer could go both ways. Maybe Tommy Wiseau hoped that people would honor and respect The Room for the philosophical art he saw it as, but even if that goal wasn’t achieved, his film still erupted enormous popularity by midnight showings of people who couldn’t get enough of, “you are tearing me apart, Lisa!” So yes, it was a hit, but not in its intended fashion.
I feel that the reason why so many people are drawn to something so enjoyably awful is because there is nothing specifically offensive about the material, and that just leaves the viewer to do nothing else besides nitpick the failures, helping the individual to feel better about his own personal strengths. It’s an odd mentality of, “there’s always someone worse at something I wish I was good at.”
Autism can have a great effect on somebody having either a lot of pride, no pride, or complete obliviousness toward strengths and weaknesses. But first, I’ll cover what it’s like to have a lot of pride:
Six-Word Lessons on Female Asperger Syndrome, Lesson #57: We Get Overexcited Sharing Our Passions.
Throughout grade school, middle school, and high school, I always wanted to think that I was the best at drawing and other arts. I was pretty much at the top of my game throughout all of grade school, until in middle school, when I started to see that some students were better than me. I felt an inner angst toward others who were better than me, so I went ahead and deliberately put down the drawings of everyone I knew was worse than me. Others with ASD can go this same way, unconsciously putting down others to feel better about their own strengths. While yes, many kids and adults do this same thing, people on the spectrum are usually not even aware they’re doing it.
Six-Word Lessons on Growing Up Autistic, Lesson #48: Insults May Be Taken Too Personally.
Anyone can be discouraged by criticism, but for people with ASD, it can feel like taking a bullet to the heart. Just recently, some random person I didn’t even know posted a comment on my Facebook photography page, saying, “Nice try but you really need to work on your color and composition.” This comment absolutely tore me apart, and it still did so as I just typed that sentence. It got me believing that I am terrible at photography and that maybe I should just quit. As for the person who left that comment, I didn’t respond to him, but rather simply deleted what he posted. Lots of people with autism can put themselves down like that and start thinking things about themselves that aren’t true.
Six-Word Lessons for Autism Friendly Workplaces, Lesson #12: Find Out About Skills and Preferences.
I’ll admit, hardly anybody knows what they want to do as a kid, and most still don’t know what they’re good at as an adult. In the case of autistics including myself, it takes a lot longer than most to learn about personal strengths and weaknesses. Just like how Florence Foster Jenkins never came to realize that she was a horrible singer, I never knew certain things about myself until I saw it from a different perspective. In high school, I was cast in the ensemble of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, thinking that I was a terrific actor, singer, and dancer. While up on stage, I felt that I had my act all together. It wasn’t until I watched the DVD of the production when I saw how I really looked on stage; I was flailing horribly out of synch from the others, and I was moving more like an uncoordinated child than a stage dancer. I never danced again after that.
You could still argue how anyone would not know all their strengths and weaknesses, but my point here is that autism makes it harder for one to look from someone else’s perspective.
And as always, here are three takeaways that can help you and people you know on the spectrum:
- Do you have any guilty pleasures? What is it about them that makes you so drawn to it in spite of its quality? Now try to think, is it empowering or insulting to the people who created that work? It’s not to say you then have to give that thing up, but rather that you can think about it more.
- If you have autism, what kinds of things do you love doing? How do you think you are at doing those things? What have others had to say about your hobbies? If it sounds like no one really approves of what you do, then it’s time to wonder if you’re even as good at it as you think.
- If you live/work with people on the spectrum, work with them to think of ways to not get discouraged by negative criticism. These coping methods are different with everybody, it’s good to think of something together that works uniquely with you.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see reviewed, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
Florence Foster Jenkins. Paramount Pictures. Web. <http://www.florencefosterjenkinsmovie.com/>.
Lodge, Guy. Film Review: Meryl Streep in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’. Digital image. Variety. Wordpress, 13 Apr 2016. Web. < http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/florence-foster-jenkins-review-meryl-streep-1201750112/>.