'Florence Foster Jenkins' makes cinematic music


“Florence Foster Jenkins” - The summer after I graduated college and before I entered the workforce, I waited tables at a Mexican restaurant. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. I made some friends and earned some bucks, but the highlight of every workweek was each Wednesday evening, karaoke night.

Every Wednesday, without fail, an ordinary 20-something guy walked in with a t-shirt and jeans and sang Aerosmith’s “Dream On”. I should say try to sing, because “Dream On” is a terribly difficult track to perform with its long, ranging notes, and this poor guy badly butchered them. His weekly performances resembled Tarzan’s call to arms or noises emanating from dying seals, but he always captured an audience who laughed and applauded every week. The guy – and sadly, I do not remember his name – was a star!

I have a sneaky suspicion this dude never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins, but he unknowingly followed in her footsteps.

Florence Foster Jenkins - a historical figure who gained fame during the 1940s - thoroughly and lavishly loved music and adored singing. She performed for small groups of friends for years, but Florence’s friends and husband kept a very tight secret from her: she cannot sing very well.

Director Stephen Frears conducts this musical biopic – set in 1944 - with Meryl Streep in the lead, and when we first see Florence, she floats above the stage in an angel costume. She does not sing – as previously-mentioned - but harmlessly offers her presence-known on a visual-basis only, and afterwards, St. Clair gives her very positive feedback on her limited performance.

This turns out to be St. Clair’s modus operandi, as he always is quick to offer encouragement. When Florence wishes to continue her singing lessons, they look for an accompanying pianist to play by her side. They find Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg)! McMoon, a mousy, quiet and odd individual, plays quite well, and Florence takes to him – and his agreeable personality - right away.

During their first lesson, McMoon discovers in the most hilarious way that Florence is not blessed with a suitable singing voice. Streep and Helberg are comically-terrific here. As Streep’s Florence bellows out flat, off-key and screeching musical notes, Helberg’s McMoon dons several facial expressions of surprise and horror. The film parades a montage of a few lessons, and although Florence’s voice strains our eardrums, we – the audience – enjoy the tuneless ride.

In a recent interview, Helberg mentioned that Streep and he rehearsed their songs for about a week and a half before filming, and she had the difficult task of purposely singing badly. In addition, Helberg is an accomplished pianist in real life, so they enjoyed practicing and performing together, off-stage and on-stage, respectively.

Frears raises the stakes for both Florence and McMoon, when the stages becoming increasingly larger and more populated will filled seats, and this creates a massive problem. St. Clair can control the guest list for small gatherings of Florence’s friends, but soon his type of “care” – which really doubles as protection, and it is protection from the truth – might fall to pieces with an ever-growing audience of fans.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” definitely includes many comedic elements, and the quick-witted script is fresh, bouncy and fun at times, but not everything in Florence's life was beautifully-crafted, and two specific circumstances were no laughing matters.

Both her health issues and strange marriage arrangements are directly linked, and Frears and Streep dedicate a “healthy” amount of screen time addressing both of them. Now, music brought Florence intense bursts of joy and love, her happiness was not eternal, and in some cases, the film portrays her as a broken spirit.

As for the two men in her life, St. Clair and McMoon, one provides protection, and the other provides support. Although protection spared her the truth of her troubled vocals for years, it is support that Florence probably needed all along. That is the important gift that McMoon bestowed upon her. They performed beautiful music, no matter how exactly the final product sounded, and that’s a true story. (3/4 stars)

Image credits: Pathe, 20th Century Fox