Thursday, August 11, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins was a mid-20th-century New York socialite who became known for her generosity to musicians and musical institutions, then grew notorious for the abysmal singing voice she insisted on sharing, through concerts and recordings, with an increasingly amused public. Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest take on her life (the most recent before that being Marguerite), is the story of a long con told from the point of view of the perpetrator and her enablers. That technique worked well in Penny Lane's recent Nuts!, where it set up a second-act reversal that revealed the dark truths behind the triumphal myth that film's subject had created around himself. But director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicolas Martin construct a suspiciously simple and sympathetic story about Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and play it straight through (though not entirely straight, as a streak of broad comedy runs through the film), leaving audiences to wonder about the very things that make Jenkins's story intriguing in the first place.

As we learn in the film, Jenkins was considered a child prodigy on the piano, well enough known to perform for a president. So was she a genuinely gifted pianist, or were the people around her then as deluded about her musical talents as she was later in life? And if she was talented as a child, and loved music as much as she purported to, how could she have so misjudged her own abilities as an adult? Some have speculated that the syphilis Jenkins contracted as a young woman from the husband she was married to only briefly, or the mercury and arsenic she took as a cure, might have ruined her hearing, but the script contains no hint of that or any other explanation for her blithe, decades-long run of laughably awful performances.

Read the rest in Slant Magazine

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