Florence Foster Jenkins
You're never too old to chase down your dream.
Have you ever loved something so much that you thought you were destined to be it, to do it, or to have it?
There were times, especially when I was younger, that I dreamt I could be a great painter or a great singer, only to reach for my lofty pursuit and come crashing down to earth with the sorry realization that I perhaps wasn't very good at it.
Lucky for Florence Foster Jenkins, who dreamed of singing opera beautifully: She was mostly spared such a harsh awakening by those who loved and protected her. She ended up chasing her dream and sharing it with others, even if they were laughing at her and not with her. Dream or delusion...does it matter if it gives you joy?
Now released on Blu-ray™ in a gift-worthy combo pack and on DVD, the excellent and hilarious feature film Florence Foster Jenkins brings to life the true story of a would-be soprano who developed a cult following because of how awful her opera singing actually was. And yet in her dreams and pursuit of operatic glory, Florence was successful in an important way: she made the lives of those around her more glamorous, more joyful, and certainly less predictable. In Florence's singing and her almost vaudevillian sense of opera was an unintentional beauty, joy, hope and naivety that folks during World War II desperately needed at the time.
Brought to life by the incomparable Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins is a wealthy New York socialite who weeps at an operatic aria and longs to share the rarified space of her theatrical passion. To that end, Florence engages the best and brightest pianist and vocal coach to train her to emulate her idols, lesson after excruciating lesson. The spectacle of Florence learning to sing is at once amusing, embarrassing and oddly admirable. Foster Jenkins is not a quitter; but is her determination a form of madness? It is known that she suffered from terminal syphilis and took medicines that had toxic levels of mercury and arsenic, which very likely clouded her judgment. Battling fatigue, she nevertheless pursued this unattainable dream of being an adored coloratura.
You'll laugh, you'll cringe, and you'll cry as Foster Jenkins' loyal husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), does everything he can to protect his wife (who is the source of his financial support) from the harsh reality of her lack of talent and fends off scathing critics and unkind crowds. There are shades of classic movies such as Sunset Boulevard as Bayfield strives to maintain his wife's illusions, and plans Florence's big concert at Carnegie Hall, all while trying to shield her from his own secret life. Will Florence flop and learn the truth about herself, and what might happen once her dreams are stripped away?
Directed by the brilliant Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), who relishes storylines dealing with unconventional drives, Florence Foster Jenkins was recently nominated for four Golden Globes, including Meryl Streep for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical—her 30th Golden Globe nomination. The film carries at its heart a powerful message about believing in your dreams; because in an unforgiving world not only might they keep you happy; they might just keep you alive.
As a lifelong fan of Meryl Streep I was thrilled to learn that in taking on the role of Florence, Streep applied the perfectionism we might expect for a serious historical drama rather than to a dramatic comedy. To ensure that Streep was not mocking the talentless and self-deluded Foster Jenkins, she embarked on strenuous singing lessons so that she could learn to sing opera well, before creating a performance in which she sings it badly.
As Streep's vocal coach Arthur Levy revealed at a recent New York City press briefing for the film, Streep proved to be "incredible, down-to-earth, lovely" and yet also "a very serious person" who studied about two hundred years of operatic repertoire before building the character.
Recommended by the brilliant Broadway star Audra McDonald, who worked with Streep on the film Ricki and the Flash, Levy jumped at the chance to train Streep vocally. The challenge was to not exhaust her through imitating a bad singer; and Streep herself said that while she could listen to recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins and parrot the ludicrous sounds back, she would not be developing her character from the inside out or taking the time to really understand her.
Recalls Levy, "The first time we did a two-octave arpeggio...Meryl gets up to a high E and she cringes and says, 'Ooh that's horrible!' And I said, 'Meryl, you may think so but it's still ten times better than Florence at her best!' We had so much fun."
According to Levy, Streep earnestly trained to sing as well as she could for two solid months before then training to sing badly. Understanding that Florence couldn't trill or was flat and couldn't maintain a note took as much effort as if she could. "Meryl's level of commitment has paid off in a lifetime's body of work. I admire it so much and it was inspiring to me," says Levy.
And that's the most rewarding thing about watching Florence Foster Jenkins: it's a kind of double narrative in which a brilliant performer finds the value in someone considered to be odd, amateurish and ridiculous. But the joke is on Florence's detractors, because in the end, in spite of being the world's worst opera singer, Florence was loved and had her fans, among them Noel Coward and David Bowie; successful artists who admired her bravura and her unwavering belief in the beauty and necessity of the performing arts, especially in dark times.
Watch more of Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins here