If the conductor of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra tells you that “there is no voice quite like yours” and encourages you to do a solo recital, would you be tempted to believe him? I just might.
As Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) descends awkwardly from the theatre ceiling dressed as “the angel of music”, she smiles with utmost sincerity. Here is a woman absolutely blissed out – performing for a packed cabaret ‘Verdi’ club, (an amateur music appreciation society) of which we learn, she is the founding member.
Amateur musicians are an interesting bunch. They’re often more enthusiastic about music than professional musicians despite their modest talent. It’s as if the mystery of music holds more magic for them. True mastery and musical enlightenment will always evade them; casting those who are adept into a magical heavenly realm of “virtuoso” or “maestro”. In all of my years as a professional musician, I’ve rarely crossed the path of any who believe they are truly gifted despite being too unmusical to know they are not.
Ignorance is bliss. Or is it?
It’s the question that’s constantly thrust upon the audience in Florence Foster Jenkins. In my own career, I’ve been told to ignore bad reviews by friends, yet been tempted to believe good ones. But which encourages growth, learning and occasionally rebellion? The bad reviews.
For Florence, we learn that music is much more than a passion. It’s literally keeping her alive.
One knock to her spirits could have disastrous results.
Florence foster Jenkins is based on a true story. Florence has syphilis. Before the 1940’s, syphilis meant a death sentence for those who contracted it. But never did it dampen her spirits.
And so a thorough system is put in place to keep her from discovering the truth – her voice sucks, it sucks real bad. In fact, when her recording was “leaked” over the airwaves, it was an instant success because of it’s comic value. But there was even more at stake than Florence’s health – she was an avid supporter of the arts and donated to the orchestra and opera financially. So remarkably, this web of lies, bribed reviewers and supporters, held fast for most of Florence’s adult life.
This film really got me thinking about why we lie to those we love – and whether it is sometimes better to sustain a lie than hear the truth.
Are you the sort of person that would tell someone immediately if there’s food in their teeth? Or tell someone they look great in an outfit they don’t because you can see how much they love it? Extend that lie for 25 years because they get so much joy and passion from believing in it? Devote your life to the upkeep of the lie because it actually benefits you and others?
This is the life of Florence’s second husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh grant). He lives off of her (inherited) wealth, and spends nights in his own apartment with another woman. I spent the whole movie trying to decide if he was a good guy or a bad guy. Was he a gold digger with an eye on her fortune, or was he a devoted loving husband, simply living in a prearranged “don’t ask don’t tell” relationship with a woman he could never fulfill his physical needs with?
Meryl Streep breathed such vitality, warmth and positivity into Florence that while I laughed at her musical butcherings of all the opera classics, I simultaneously admired the guts and passion that she poured into everything she did. She may not be musically inspiring, but inspiring nonetheless.