‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ — a cinematic high note

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MUSIC TO HER EARS—Meryl Streep stars in the title role of “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a bio pic on an heiress, who was under the delusion that she had an operatic voice worthy of Carnegie Hall. Paramount Pictures

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction and this is certainly the case when it comes to Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). As a child she was a gifted pianist who performed at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. Later in life she turned her musical attention to singing in her own very unique way—off key and off pitch.

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction and this is certainly the case when it comes to Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). As a child she was a gifted pianist who performed at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. Later in life she turned her musical attention to singing in her own very unique way—off key and off pitch.

Now, in Paramount Picture’s film bio, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” you can find out more about this very unusual opera singer, described by an unmerciful critic as “the worst singer in the world.” Obviously he didn’t have a sense of fun or he would have appreciated her unusual singing style the way her friends and fans did. Fortunately, until the very end, she was shielded from unfavorable criticism by ‘husband’ St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) who never invited a credentialed music critic to any of her musical appearances.

Things changed, however, when she finally decides to sing at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 25, 1944. Many celebs, like Cole Porter and Kitty Carlisle, came to hear her belt out Mozart and Verdi. Florence also issued free tickets to servicemen in appreciation for their military service in WWII. Unfortunately newspaper critics also showed up to review her concert since St. Clair couldn’t deny them access this time.

Meryl Streep is delightful as the tone deaf diva with a heart of gold. She makes us laugh as she screeches out famous operatic arias in the same bizarre way Jenkins did. She also brings us close to tears when unhappy elements of the singer’s life are revealed in Nicholas Martin’s insightful screenplay.

Simon Helberg (TV’s “Big Bang Theory”) also gives a pitch perfect performance as her devoted accompanist Cosme McMoon who, like Florence, has dreams of appearing on stage at Carnegie Hall. One of the many comedy highlights in the film is Cosme’s audition for the job. The look on his face when she starts to sing is priceless. He can’t laugh, but we can, as he tries to adjust his playing to her vocal range. He is even more astonished when he actually lands the job.

Hugh Grant, charming as ever, plays her devoted common law husband St. Clair Bayfield to perfection. And while he never sings in the film he does have a scene where he dances up a storm. Before St. Clair, a charming British Shakespearean actor, met Florence in 1909, she was briefly married to Dr. Jenkins. While we never see the doctor in the film, aspects of their unfortunate relationship are revealed.

Although Bayfield and Florence Foster Jenkins never officially married, for reasons not clarified in the film, they remained together till the day she died in 1944. Stephen Frears directed this delightful film, which may be an Oscar contender in 2017. From Paramount, rated PG 13.

After seeing the movie I looked up Florence on the internet and learned even more about this quirky opera singer. One amusing anecdote not seen in the movie had to do with a careless motorist who ran into the side of her cab. Upon impact Jenkins let out a high pitched scream resembling F above high C. Amazed by the sound of her new vocal reach, she didn’t press charges against the motorist and gave her cabbie a box of very expensive Cuban cigars.

Another interesting note: Before writing this review, I asked “Alexa” (the voice of the web-enabled Amazon Echo device that answers questions when asked)  if “she” could play a Florence Foster Jenkins song for me. To my amazement Alexa provided me with a Jenkins aria she recorded long ago. Florence was off key and off pitch, but it was obvious that she was singing her heart out. Listening to her voice, I was reminded of a touching line from the film, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

***

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