Florence Foster Jenkins remains a light-hearted and spirted spirited film styled as a quirky feel good biographical comedy (with some elements of drama).
Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. It’s about the life and times of the eponymous character—Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944).
Jenkins was a socialite and amateur soprano who became notorious for being the world’s worst opera singer. Fabulous, darling!
Florence Foster Jenkins and the Pursuit of Mediocrity
Hollywood usually focuses on musical genius, such as with the brilliant Amadeus (1984) and a look at the life (and scatological times) of Mozart.
For Florence Foster Jenkins, we’re taking a look into the world of incompetence and adequacy. Opening in New York, 1944, wealthy socialist Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is running a music venue called the Verdi Club. She’s in her early 70s.
Meanwhile, she lives in a fancy grand hotel suite. She dates British the younger Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who also has a younger mistress.
Jenkins is also a long-term sufferer of syphilis, which she contracted from her first marriage. To alleviate this issue, she often bathes in unusual substances. Her eccentricities are also potentially due to her illness—she always carries her will around with her in a giant black briefcase (based on Jenkins in real life, of course).
Inspired by French-American operatic soprano Lily Pons (1898-1976), Jenkins decide to have a stab at singing. Pianist Cosmé McMoon (1901-1980) is hired (played by Simon Helberg) and is stunned by Jenkins’ lack of singing ability.
Bayfield and Carlo Edwards (David Haig), a conductor for Metropolitan Opera, pretend she’s amazing to protect her ego. The former even warns McMoon to avoid criticising Jenkins.
Bayfield then arranges a small recital at the Verdi Club, with a small crowd gathered for the performance. When Jenkins starts singing, some are able to contain themselves. Others lose the plot to hysterics.
There’s lots of stuff like that, then, but also some more touching moments. Jenkins informs McCoon she was a piano player, too.
But her illness is slowly robbing her of more abilities. And she’d even played for the President as a child, which leads McCoon to realise she’s not inept. More out of touch and, increasingly, unwell.
The film steadily builds towards Jenkins’ performance at the famous Carnegie Hall, which Bayfield and McCoon struggle with letting happen (moral conscience and what have you).
But the concert is eventually packed and it results in, essentially, being the highlight of McCoon’s career.
This doesn’t stop one journalist from writing a scathing review in the New York Post, which is met by Bayfield and McCoon buying as many copies as possible the morning after the performance. Then destroying them.
Florence Foster Jenkins closes out with the singer becoming ill and nearing her passing, aware of the negative reviews she’s received. But she takes pride in daring to give it a go, despite lacking the talent.
Yes, then, Florence Foster Jenkins plays its script as a feel good movie (apart from the ending, anyway). There’s light tone of humour (almost with a type of Carry On film tongue-in-cheek quality) and some other dramatics.
It doesn’t explore the nature of what Jenkins was up to. Nor do we think it has to—it’s more of an audience pleaser over a deep, dark psychological exploration of this lady’s psyche.
Yet it would have benefitted as a production if it had delved deeper.
But it’s a good film! Amusing, poignant, but perhaps a little too light in tone for its own good. Nevertheless, it’s one to watch and enjoy if you fancy laughing and/or crying simultaneously. Whatever floats your boat.
If anything, it’s a celebration of imperfections. And Streep is excellent in the role, as you’d expect, making it well worth your time for that alone.
The Production of Florence Foster Jenkins
Off its $29 million budget, Florence Foster Jenkins enjoyed a solid global box office return of $56 million. Yes, solid. But not spectacular.
It was nominated for Best Costume Design at the Oscars, with Streep gaining her 20th nomination for Best Actress (you know… it’s almost like she’s talented, or something).
Just to note as well, especially if you’ve seen Mamma Mia! (2008), you’ll know Streep can sing perfectly well. And she can sing perfectly poorly, too, as she did all her own work in Florence Foster Jenkins.
She worked closely with Simon Helberg (McCoon) and they recorded a bunch of music together at Abbey Road—they went on to perform all the music live on set! Quite the undertaking. But kudos on the commitment.
Many scenes were filmed in London. The big concert do (supposed to be at Carnegie Hall) was show at the Hammersmith Apollo. Other scenes were shot in Liverpool.
Finally, to this day it’s unclear if Jenkins was in on the whole thing. As in, aware she was awful but just revelling in the attention (she was a socialite, after all). However, the most popularly accepted theory is her syphilis was affecting her mental capacity and also result in deafness and tone-deafness.
The Real Florence Foster Jenkins Singing
Thankfully, there’s some footage of this lady giving it plenty. The fact so many people turned up to hear her sing isn’t perhaps as remarkable as it first appears.
For a start, there’s the simple humour factor. But it’s clear Jenkins also commanded very real respect in her era. Due to her technical incompetence as a singer. Some people just seemed to revere how she was willing to give it some serious welly.
Contemporary operatic tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) regarded her highly. And the poet William Morris Meredith Jr. (1919-2007) wrote of her shows:
“[It] was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end.”
There’s something inherently amusing about someone being really awful at opera (or classical music). Perhaps as we’re all so used to seeing experts at their craft at work making it all look easy.
Florence Foster Jenkins reminds us of a clip from Trigger Happy TV back in 1998 and Dom Joly’s attempt at opera.
Naturally, we must also nod to 2022’s indie game classic Trombone Champ.
In the game, probably the most hilarious one we’ve ever played, players are encouraged to be mediocre (or worse) at classic music staples. We had a go at it (of course) with these exceptional results.
A celebration of incompetence and mediocrity. And why not?! In the YouTube comments of that video of ours we’ve had people singing the praises of that dreadful performance:
“I was absolutely crying from laughter. Thank you 🤣🤣🤣”
There’s nothing wrong with just having a go at something for enjoyment purposes. If you enjoy it, but you suck (or are distinctly average) then why stop? Enjoy yourselves, dammit!
I recently watched Florence Foster Jenkins and liked it. A big fan of Grant I found he did a great job as the
Attentive husband managing the pretense. Both amusing and a little sad.
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Is good! No classic. But definitely memorable for a number of reasons. Hugh Grant is da man, apparently. Up there with Jamie Oliver.
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Ya! Hugh rocks.
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Huge rocks? Sometimes, ya!
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