According to a new biopic Florence Foster Jenkins left the world with these words on her lips, “People may say I couldn’t sing but no one can say I didn’t sing.” Meryl Streep plays the eccentric New York City songbird as a woman with a passion for music but an ear of tin.
The delightful story of a society hostess with a song in her heart but no ability to translate that into something tuneful, is twenty five minutes into its running time before Jenkins (Streep) lets loose with her atonal caterwauling. She’s a wealthy woman who has devoted herself to the musical life of her city. She’s a patron of the arts, giving money to legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini and others, a founder of clubs, a fixture of mid-twentieth century New York life.
When she attends a Lily Pons (Aida Garifullina) recital the fire to sing is ignited. “Can you imagine what that must feel like,” she says, “to hold 3000 people in the cup of your hand?” With the help of her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) she hires pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) and Maestro Carlo Edwards, assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, to whip her into stage shape in exchange for handsome paydays. Trouble is her vocalizing sounds like two cats in heat fighting in an alleyway. So wrapped up in the music, she has no idea of the terrible sounds coming out of her mouth. “There is no one quite like you,” the Metropolitan maestro says delicately.
Her performances are both remarkable and delusional. “A few wrong notes can be forgiven,” says Bayfield, “but singing without passion cannot.” Her husband, who loves her but has a younger girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) living in his downtown apartment, carefully manages who comes to her vanity performances, ensuring the audiences is stacked with well wishers. When Florence books Carnegie Hall for a charity concert for US servicemen, Bayfield does everything he can to protect her from the “mockers and scoffers.” When tickets to the show sell out faster than for Sinatra—megastars Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead even show up—the show becomes Manhattan’s social event of the year but is it a display of vainglorious egotism or passion?
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is one of those true-to-life bios that seems to prove the cliché that fact is stranger than fiction. In real life Jenkins’s awful singing sold out concert halls and the records she made were the biggest sellers Melotone Recording Studios ever had and have become collector’s items. She is the center of the action, the reason we are here, and Streep plays her with gusto. Like Jenkins who won audiences over with her enthusiasm, Streep wins us over with her passion to present her character as a real person and not a caricature of a talentless hack unaware that she was being laughed at. Afflicted with syphilis contracted on her wedding night, she fought to stay alive for 50 years, taking each day as it comes, inspired by her love of music to go on. Streep, as usual, finds the real humanity of her character and brings that to life.
But for once, Streep is not the star of the show. In a movie filled to the brim with great performances from Streep, Nina Arianda as a Judy Holliday-type with a loud mouth and Ferguson as Bayfield’s second fiddle, it is Grant who shines the brightest.
His Bayfield is courtly but tough, a maître d’ for Jenkins’s life. He protects her from the harsh realities of life, making sure their “happy world” stays that way. It’s the kind of effortless performance that made him a star but it isn’t all surface charm and wit. Under his furrowed brow is a real love for Florence that extends beyond the perks of being married to one of the city’s richest women. He genuinely loves her and that comes across every time he glances in her direction. If it’s not a career best performance for Grant, it’s very close.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a story of devotion, passion and off key singing that, unlike its subject, hits all the right notes.