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 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.
I will admit however that this movie falls victim to its White-washed depiction of New York City that's already plagued Hollywood since its inception, but if you're not that critical about it it shouldn't bother you too much. It’s just amazing how this movie is not the typical mainstream feature expected to make much of any money over the summer, and yet it is 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.
I'm not sure though if it really pays off in the end, unfortunately. 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, which has no resolution on their part. She believes that these soldiers need to feel joy, which can most tangibly be felt through music, which was never so much as glazed upon. The anticipation is not so much focused on important matters like the soldiers who die every day for our country's safety, but the more personal close to home issues: tension builds before she takes the stage, and 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.
Then 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? This cinematic retelling of the worst opera singer in the world is still 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.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, 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/>.