Let’s say you are at a piano recital or an elementary school talent show. A child performs a piece, and all the notes are wrong. It’s too fast or too slow. A musical train wreck. But at the end, all the adults politely clap as the performer briefly bows and runs off the stage.
Then, at a later age, that same child learns he really can’t play. A stern teacher says he’s tone deaf and has no rhythm, no musicality. Or imagine a teen who is told by friends that her drawing of a face really looks like pancake. In short, quality wins out over participation. Instead of awarding medals to every child on every soccer team, only the best win the trophy.
Now imagine if no one were to tell you, your entire life, that you are absolutely the worst singer in the world—and you actually think you are very good.
That is the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano delightfully brought to life by Meryl Streep. Protected by her husband, the aristocratic St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), Florence has no idea how bad she is. Bayfield helps arrange for the best teacher in town, hires a first-rate pianist to accompany her, and goes along with her dream of singing at Carnegie Hall. As Bayfield, Hugh Grant gives one of his best performances, playing the lady’s man as always, but in this case one with a true heart.
The first part of the movie leads up slowly to the point when Florence opens her mouth to sing. Her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) shows utter shock and disbelief as Florence squeaks and squawks away. McMoon’s expression is worth the price of admission.
Since Florence is a wealthy patroness of the arts in New York City, musical celebrities as eminent as the conductor Arturo Toscanini come begging at her door. In that way, the film points out how wealth protects her from honest criticism and supports her visions of grandeur.
Fortunately, the film goes deeper than the portrait of a deluded, rich soprano. As we learn of Florence’s past, we understand her odd relationship with Bayfield and his devotion to her. Director Stephen Frears, in a technically fluid film, suggests ironically that artistic perfection is not everything in life.
It would be surprising if Streep did not get nominated for numerous awards. An accomplished singer in her own right, Streep does a marvelous job of making awful singing delightful—and her performance helps us realize that anyone can and should sing, dance, write, and enjoy the arts. In theaters now. (Paramount)
About the Author
Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.