A NEW YORK HEIRESS’ MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
By Pablo A. Tariman
By the looks of it, Florence Jenkins is no great singer but she is generous to a fault specially when musicians and concert organizers are concerned.
She knows their needs (sponsorship) but her greatest joy is watching her idol, Lily Pons (played by Aida Garifullina) negotiate a perilous aria and closing her eyes when her idol succeeds beautifully.
Indeed, she loved music enough to re-live what singers are going through.
And so she took voice lessons seriously, learned arias by heart but the trouble is she doesn’t have the instrument for it. In the beginning, she was a promising pianist. But an early marriage led to a mysterious disease that probably affected her singing voice. But stop she won’t. She kept the illness to herself and turned to singing with a vengeance. To the stranger in her circle, she is the laughing stock. But she has a coterie of friends who can appreciate her beyond her strange coloratura. Encouraged by a “modest success” in a dry-run intimate recital, she sets sight on her ultimate goal: to sing at Carnegie Hall.
What transpired was like holocaust with people mocking her and another group lending moral support. Her husband bought all the copies of a New York newspaper to make sure she doesn’t read the scathing review. She saw it anyway and rushing back to her friends, she fell on the floor and like it or not, the scene is a fitting tableaux called Death of an Illusion.
Watching Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins” brings us to the classical music scene in New York in the middle 40s. One of its infamous figures is the New York heiress named Florence Foster Jenkins who started as a promising pianist but by some circumstance, she caught a disease turned to singing and became the center of most music appreciation clubs promoting classical music.
When one finally hears her voice in a first rehearsal with her coach, you begin to see the acting genius that is Meryl Streep. At first, she tries to sing, then she squeaks and by turn croaks reducing the theater into a mass of guffawing humans.
As her coach tells her to expand her diaphragm and sustain a note, you can see the actress very much into the character and loving every minute of it.
“Jenkins” is pretty much a Meryl Streep tour de force and watching her delineate her character is like an invitation to good acting. She is every inch the character and while you enjoy the laughter watching her rehearse and sing, there is something in her personhood that defies what is close to impossible in the music world. She loves music, no doubt about that but she also loves the adoration of friends. She may not sing her music well but she lives music, every note of it, until her death. It is poignantly providential that her favorite pianist, Cosme MacMoon (brilliantly played by Simon Helberg) is playing Ravel’s The Dying Swan in her sickbed.
The latest Meryl Streep-starrer is another good look into the performing arts with people enslaved by their artistic obsessions. It is in fact reminiscent of “Black Swan” the lead star of which (Natalie Portman) virtually bagged several acting awards.
While Streep hugged every frame of the movie, her co-stars also provided excellent ensemble support.
Hugh Grant as her protective common-law (second) husband, St. Clair Bayfield, did just as well specially as her wife’s resident impresario.
But second to Streep, the actor who played her pianist Cosme MacMoon (Simon Helberg) had his own brilliant moments in several rehearsal and concert scenes. When he heard the voice of his patron for the first time, his facial reactions spoke volumes. When he realized he is being dragged into a Carnegie Hall debut with an unlikely singer, his moments of fear and hesitations captured what lurks into the heart of every artist in times of unusual artistic challenges.
Scriptwriter Nicholas Martin looked like he knew Jenkins inside and out including the milieu she inhabits. His script gave the director enough leeway to make something memorable about a non-singer’s magnificent obsession.
For a non-music fan, “Jenkins” is a foray into in the world of artists all dreaming to make a Carnegie Hall debut.
For the music aficionado, “Jenkins” is an affirmation of what keeps the music scene alive. The characters are all there in various roles – the impresario who makes sure his artist gets a good review, the reviewer who makes no qualms about calling a spade a spade and the coterie of opening night audiences who end up gracing the society pages even if half of whom probably didn’t know anything about the music they heard.
This film goes beyond the guffaws it elicits and goes deep into the heart of a dedicated music warrior.
The subject may not be your idea of a memorable diva but the director managed to give us a life behind that obsessed singer. For that reason alone, the film is a must-see even for non-music lovers.
La Streep singing an Ernest Charles song at the end wraps up what is deep and poignant about this movie —
When I have sung my songs to you I’ll sing no more
T’would be a sacrilege to sing at another door
We’ve worked so hard to hold our dreams just you and I
I could not share them all again I’d rather die
“Florence Foster Jenkins” now showing in cinemas.
(Reprinted from Philippine Star, August 18, 2016)