Friday, September 17, 2021

Movie review: Florence Foster Jenkins


If you have ever rolled out of your seat laughing at a PDQ Bach concert, you’ll totally get the latest movie about a New York patron of the arts from the 1940s; if you’ve never had the pleasure, you might still get it if you know good music when you hear it and can appreciate why Donald Trump is likely to be a source of jokes on middle school buses as school starts.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was born in 1868 and continued to be a valuable patron of the arts in New York until she died in 1944. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini would come calling on her occasionally, especially when a concert needed a wealthy sponsor. She and her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), both attest to the value of music in their lives, even believing it has kept her alive with syphilis long beyond what was a typical survival time for people with the disease at the time.

Jenkins fancied herself a singer, not just a supporter of musicians, though. She was nothing of the sort, so her drive to give concerts and recitals, rather than just sponsoring concerts and recitals by real musicians, was a complete delusion, which Bayfield supported perfectly.

For example, he made sure only sympathetic (or bribed) people ever heard her sing. Her singing was music to her own ears, but although she would be able to hire the best vocal coaches in the world to spend an hour with her from time to time, she just didn’t have the pipes to pull off even a pop song. But that simple fact was of no concern and had no effect on reducing the power of her delusion. She would not be bothered by the fact that she was off key.

Of course, if she’s singing, she needs a piano accompanist to back her up. She auditions several candidates, as Mr Trump used to interview job candidates for his reality TV show back when, and dismisses most of them despite their clear talent. They’re not her type, Bayfield tells them as he shows them the door.

She ends up with a rather accomplished Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). He’s under the impression he’s being hired to accompany an accomplished singer. His dreams of rising to the top of the ranks as a concert pianist are dashed as soon as the first note comes out of Ms Jenkins’s mouth. His facial expressions are just hilarious, and I imagine this is how many people of intelligence feel when they hear speeches given by Mr Trump.

And boy, did she enjoy hearing crowds respond wildly to her performances! A few of those performances involved no singing but just a costume she would wear while posing with other women. But the big one, the one at Carnegie Hall in October 1944 (it’s one of the most requested programs from the hall), involved her singing some works from operas. McMoon’s straight face is priceless, and Ms Streep, whose own voice is quite trained, actually, is outrageous and pulls off one of the most difficult feats for a good singer: playing a bad singer in the movies.

At least we can point to the fact that McMoon was paid to be there, and money from Jenkins is just as green as money from any legitimate coloratura soprano; I’m not sure what reason the many Republicans who support Mr Trump give for their continued support.

The executive functions in the brains of junior high students, who are telling Donald Trump jokes on their buses, haven’t even developed yet. Formal operational thinking is mostly absent. So when even they know enough about a job candidate’s qualifications that they can joke about it (humor is a higher thinking skill of a sort), our collective jaw comes more unhinged than McMoon’s did the first time he realized what was going on. Will we ever figure it out?

On wide release in US theaters, August 12, 2016, Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13 and runs for 110 minutes. It has a few (very mildly) suggestive scenes, a bit of partying, and ubiquitous bad singing. We saw the movie in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

We review movies in order to support Illinois Learning Standards in the fine arts, especially 26.A.4b (Understand how the primary tools, support tools and creative processes—researching, auditioning, designing, directing, rehearsing, refining, presenting—interact and shape drama, theater and film production), 26.A.5 (Analyze and evaluate how the choice of media, tools, technologies and processes support and influence the communication of ideas), and 27.B.5 (Analyze how the arts shape and reflect ideas, issues or themes in a particular culture or historical period), among others.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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