High Notes

Meryl Streep Gives Moving Musical Performance in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’


Florence Foster Jenkins
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant & Simon Helberg
Directed by Stephen Frears

“I’ve got the music in me,” proclaimed singer Kiki Dee in her pumping, thumping Top 20 hit of 1974. “I’ve got the music in me, I’ve got the music in me!”

Some three decades before Kiki Dee, another singer made a similar proclamation, when matronly New York City socialite Florence Foster Jenkins was filled with a lifelong, over-abundant love of music—but a serious lack of talent.

Director Stephen Frears, whose resume also includes The Queen, Philomena and Dangerous Liasons, brings Jenkins’ quirky story to the screen with humor as well as heart, never crossing over into camp or parody in a tale that certainly couldn’t gone there. Meryl Streep has proven she can indeed sing, and quite well—in Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods and Ricki and the Flash—which makes her enthusiastic off-key yelping, peeping and squawking as Florence all the more of a marvel.

After a big-screen, major-role absence of several years, it’s good to see Hugh Grant back. He’s terrific as Florence’s common-law husband, St Clair Bayfield, who loves her dearly and shields her from “mockers and scoffers” by bribing newspaper critics and making sure audiences at her concerts are packed with friends and supporters.

Simon Helberg

Simon Helberg

Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz on TV’s The Big Bang Theory) has a major role as Jenkins’ young piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon. At first incredulous at her ineptitude, McMoon later comes—as we do—to admire and respect Jenkins’ childlike innocence and the purity of her desire to share music with others in the “profound communion” of performance.

The movie takes its basic setup—a biopic of a pop-cultural footnote character—and fleshes it out in engrossing detail. We see the tremendous lengths to which Bayfield and others in Florence’s elite social circle go to protect—and enable—her. Florence’s vocal coach uses phrases like “You’ve never sounded better” and “There is no one quite like you” to avoid hurting her feelings and pointing out her clear shortcomings.

Bayfield’s long-term relationship with a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) is strained by his equal devotion to Florence. “It’s complicated,” he tells McMoon. And indeed it is. We learn the heartbreaking reason Florence and Bayfield never married, never had children and never had a “real” marriage—and how Florence’s doomed first marriage, when she was 18, left her devastated and damaged, in more ways than one.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINSWe learn of the tragic medical condition—and its toxic treatments—that may have led to some, or many, of Florence’s oddball behaviors, phobias or even delusions.

But mostly we learn of a singer who loved to sing, who had a dream of doing it at Carnegie Hall, and about the unconventional love story at the center of it all.

“They may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing,” says Florence toward the end of the film, in a final, parting nod toward her naysayers who refused to see—or hear—the unbridled joy and happiness of her out-of-tune operatics.

“Bravo,” Bayfield replies with a bittersweet smile. And bravo, Meryl Streep, for a moving performance that reminds us that music, like any gift, is one meant to be shared, and that in 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins followed the music “in her.”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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