Cinematic Releases: Florence Foster Jenkins

Andrew reviews the biopic of the world's worst opera singer. The film is out tonight. Read our review.

It goes without saying 75 year old British director Stephen Frears is one of the great filmmakers of our time.  From the classical period drama Dangerous Liasons to the modern record store comedy High Fidelity, the director recently garnered a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for Philomena and has been nominated twice for Best Director.  His latest venture focuses on the infamous yet lovable cult heroine Florence Foster Jenkins, a well-to-do heiress who around the 1930s owned a music club and gained notoriety as arguably the worst opera singer of all time.  Starring Meryl Streep in the titular role of the socialite whose boundless ambition is beset by her absence of talent, Hugh Grant as her supportive husband and Simon Helberg as her hired pianist, the film is a delightful, hilarious and oddly touching dramedy which will make you laugh at her cringe inducing vocals and tug at your heartstrings once you come to know the hopelessly talentless but charming woman.  While a bit schmaltzy and leaning towards another Oscar bait role for Streep, this is one of the funniest films of the year which joins Tim Burton’s Ed Wood for celebrating the artist’s awful highlights as opposed to mocking her.  

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Being a longtime fan of the aforementioned Wood and having recently discovered the joyously terrible wonderment of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, I can’t believe I never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins until now.  Looking her up online I discovered the actual 78rpm vinyl recordings and they’re every bit as hard on the ears as the legend depicted in the film promises.  As a joke, ear plugs were handed to patrons at the screening I attended and the loud theater sound only amplified the shrill sandpapering of the ear drums.  Though Florence Foster Jenkins didn’t make many recordings, the few that exist are wonderfully bad and you can see immediately why she gained cult appeal for all the wrong reasons.  For director Frears, he recreates a lovingly detailed rendition of 1930s New York with ornate costume and set design, taking us inside Jenkins’ carefully guarded bubble and Streep can’t help but make you fall in love with Jenkins who imbues her with passion, drive and a genuine love for music despite her own inability to practice it.  Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg turn over solid supporting performances as her closest comrades who stand behind Jenkins’ foolish dream while doing all they can to shield her from the general public’s true regard for her.  Visually the film is a glossy widescreen effort with lovely vistas of Carnegie Hall and the luxurious apartment of the film's titular subject and Alexandre Desplat always provides a sumptuous score that's a classical delight for the ears.

Having seen Frear’s comparatively heavier Philomena only a couple years ago, Florence Foster Jenkins marks a lighter and far more entertaining offering for the distinguished director.  With a filmography as classy as well as diverse as his, it’s a welcome addition to find him doing something fun for a change.  In an era where grandiose biopics of the world’s greatest musical artists are all the rage, it’s refreshing for once to see one about the opposite end of the spectrum and with my tongue firmly planted in cheek I can say I’m now a fan of those few existing Jenkins recordings.  You could make the argument the alternative culture ironically celebrating the misguided failures purported by the likes of Ed Wood, Tommy Wiseau, Golan-Globus and Uwe Boll began with Florence Foster Jenkins.  While the film isn’t breaking new ground in terms of narrative design or reaching for any artistic heights, Florence Foster Jenkins was so much fun to watch I can’t wait to see it again.  God bless Mr. Frears for turning his cameras on this legendarily awful singer!  When you’re having a bad day, just put one of her tracks on and when you aren’t cringing, you’re likely to form a wide smile on your face.

- Andrew Kotwicki