Sunday, 18 September 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins
Today I finally watched Florence Foster Jenkins, a bio-pic starring Meryl Street and Hugh Grant and it was alternatively hilarious and touching.

Based in a true story, it's about a wealthy socialite who inherited a lot of money and was a patron (and founder) of many musical clubs, one of which was the Verdi Club. She would always appear in them, usually at the end, not singing, but in elaborate costumes she designed herself.

Her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), is much younger, and acts as her manager and organizes shows, and more importantly constantly showers her with praises.

Florence making one of her (off pitch) recordings in a studio
In the movie she watches a soprano perform in a recital and decides she wants to become a singer. They hire a pianist to accompany her, the delightful Simon Helberg who plays Cosme McMoon.

When he arrives for the first practice session, Cosme quickly realizes Florence is an awful singer -- but her coach, the assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera thinks her voice is wonderful, as does Bayfield -- so what can Cosme do considering she's paying him US$150 a week in 1944?

Her singing is not just a private hobby -- she wants to perform in front of an audience and so Bayfield goes through great lengths to choose suitable concert goers, and great hilarity ensues.

She doesn't choose songs that are easier for her to master, but ones that are way beyond her ability, such as "Queen of the Night" from Mozart's The Magic Flute and "Clavelitos". Cosme also composes some songs for her too.

Appearing as an angel of inspiration for the Verdi Club
We also find out about Florence having syphilis for 50 years, which she contracted from her first husband and out of courtesy, doesn't have intimate relations with Bayfield. This gives him a reason to look elsewhere for a relationship that Cosme discovers and realizes things are pretty complicated.

Streep is fantastic as Florence; you sympathize with her because of her personal setbacks, but then you also wonder if she knows what she's getting herself into,  performing in public. And how do you sing badly, not to the point of ridiculing her, but singing her heart out the way she did back then? It's no easy feat.

Bayfield's character is complicated, and Grant pulls it off well. He doesn't play the goofy character anymore, but someone who has a symbiotic relationship with Florence, as they need each other to survive.

The real Miss Florence in one of her costumes
And then Cosme is trying to navigate the whole situation the best he can, though it's his eyes that give away his true thoughts. Helberg also plays the piano, but he didn't play much classical beforehand, mostly jazz and rock music, so this was an additional learning curve for him.

After doing some research, the film is pretty accurate when it comes to the facts about Florence's and Bayfield's backgrounds, and the concert she gave in Carnegie Hall in October 1944.

It is believed the medication she took for syphilis that had toxic side effects, like mercury and arsenic, may have impaired her nervous system, affecting her hearing for pitch, as she was a piano prodigy when she was a child.

So while Florence is used to being in high society, she also came from humble roots, but it seems music was her true passion, and she was determined couldn't do without it.

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