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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Movie Review: It's Like a Kind of Torture

Meryl Streep is Florence Foster Jenkins.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She's the queen of the night: Meryl Streep vs. Mozart in Florence Foster Jenkins.
Photo © 2016 courtesy Pathé Pictures.
Every opera lover eventually learns the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the matronly New York heiress whose charitable activities were equalled only by her own ambitions to become a leading coloratura soprano. In 1944, Mrs. Jenkins even gave a memorable recital at Carnegie Hall, that met with gales of audience laughter and lashings of critical scorn. She died soon after, and her ghost haunts every hoot, squawk and false note uttered by today's singers on the stage. She lives on as a kind of patron saint of poor performance and noble effort.

Mrs. Jenkins is the eponymous subject of a new biopic starring Meryl Streep, released in the UK last April and around the world in August. Florence Foster Jenkins takes a balanced and in-depth view of her struggles both onstage and off, detailing all the effort and enthusiasm that went into the very last stages of her operatic career. The film is a leisurely, loving and thoroughly enjoyable visit to a gilded New York of the last century, with Ms. Streep radiant and wonderfully off-key in the title role.

Although marketed as a comedy, and having moments of genuine hilarity in its two-hour running time), this film is essentially serious. The screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) takes one into the details of Mrs. Jenkins' struggles with chronic disease in an unflinching manner. That same fly-on-the-wall approach applied to endlesso coaching sessions with well-greased music professionals, who urge the singer through difficult arias by Mozart, Delibes and Johann Strauss. The subplot probes her dysfunctional, but happy marriage to the caddish actor St. Clair Bayfield, played to perfection by Hollywood's favorite British cad Hugh Grant.

The real Florence Foster Jenkins, costumed as the "Angel of Inspiration"
on a reissue of her recordings by RCA. © 1944 RCA.
Mr. Grant is now semi-retired, and apparently ended his hiatus out of a deep desire to work with Ms. Streep. As Bayfield, his character is a two-timing bastard, and yet one senses that his second relationship with Katherine Weatherly (played in a fiery turn by Rebecca Ferguson) exists purely out of carnal necessity. There is a central sequence of great French farce humor when his wife shows up at his apartment, the scene of a wild, celebratory party the night before, and Mr. Grant runs about like a decapitated chicken attempting to hide his mistress and hung-over overnight guests as Mrs. Jenkins pounds at the door.

The third leg of the movie;s central triangle is her accomapnist Cosmé McMoon, her accompanist and some would say, her accomplice in the aforementoned Carnegie Hall recital. Played by Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz on CBS' Big Bang Theory), McMoon is a mouse of man who is also a professional musician. His intial reaction to Mrs. Jenkins' remarkable voice is the movie's best laugh, and yet he becomes a staunch and sympathetic ally. This is a breakout performance for this young actor, who is also a professional pianist who did his own playing throughout the film.

Those who have followed Ms. Streep's film career may know that she is a credible singer, having taken on musical roles in films like A Prairie Home Companion and Mamma Mia!. She does a considerable job of singing very badly indeed, getting her instrument up in the stratosphere before taking vague sideswipes at high F and hitting notes flat, sharp, and (as the Queen of the Night) simply upside the head. Her singing, done live by Ms. Streep is excruciating, and very much in the spirit of Mrs. Jenkins' own recorded performances.

If sitting through the performances here requires some degree of masochism, Mr. Frears balances this by showing the giddy, sadistic laughter with which these questionable recitals were met. At one private musicale, Mr. Grant runs about like a man whose house is on fire, trying to contain the laughter of two concert-goers. At the film's Carnegie Hall climax, the movie struggles openly with the question of criticism vs. popular art, and shows that both sides may indeed have a case. And yet, at the core of this film is Mrs. Streep's performance, capturing Mrs. Jenkins' essential depth and humanity in one of her most moving performances.

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