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“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
- Florence Foster Jenkins

It’s a slight but entertaining look at one of the most unlikely stars in music history.

Ode to Joy

Meryl Streep is Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep is Florence Foster Jenkins

This is late-summer counterprogramming, to say the least, and it’s one deserving of an audience. A rather genteel comedy based on a true story, it’s directed by Stephen Frears, whose impressive track record offers High Fidelity, The Queen and Dirty Pretty Things.

No explosions. No space creatures. No multi-stage comic book universes.

Nope. None of that.

But it does have Meryl Streep in — surprise — yet another terrific take on a real-life personality, adding to a collection including Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, Karen Silkwood, Emmeline Pankhurst and Karen Blixen.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a woman who couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it, yet back in the 1940s she wound up becoming a superstar who to this day eclipses the likes of William Hung. Her recordings would become her record label’s top sellers and the program of her performance at Carnegie Hall would become the most requested in that majestic auditorium’s storied history.

Musical Snuff Box

Watching Florence’s story unfold brings to mind a couple fictional megastars: Lucy Ricardo and Norma Desmond. Lucy was always looking for ways to slip into husband Ricky’s musical numbers at the Tropicana, despite a complete lack of vocal control. Norma Desmond was a faded movie star from the silent era whose butler faked fan letters and created an isolated world in which Norma’s legend grew.

Florence — in a mix of pathos and humor — lived a similar life. She founded a live theatre club and she was one of New York City’s patron saints of the arts. Among her friends were Arturo Toscanini and the Vanderbilts; among the guests at her Carnegie Hall performance were Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead.

Her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, About a Boy), tried his best to put her in front of truly “select” audiences when she performed — a carefully curated and financially rewarded group of people who’d cheer her on and encourage her in the face of complete and utter tone deafness.

(In the name of fair play, Florence hid poor reviews of St Clair’s acting from him.)

But amid that rather zany, discordant life was a woman of stone-solid character.

Gloria

Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin find the compassionate side of Florence’s story and there’s plenty of reason to care about this woman whose best intentions — such as creating a recording of her singing for friends and offering 1,000 free tickets for her Carnegie Hall performance to U.S. soldiers fighting for freedom in the hell of WWII — created a backdraft of ridicule that was amazingly quashed in pretty short order.

It’s revealed — gracefully — that Florence has syphilis. It was contracted from her first husband 50 years earlier. Her treatments included arsenic and mercury. And it was grounds for her to never consummate her love with St Clair.

That relationship with St Clair is itself an intricate piece of work. He could be seen as cold and calculating, living the good life with a mistress while buffering Florence from true critique. But St Clair, at least as presented here, loved Florence and was looking out for her well-being in a sort of delicate balancing act.

In the end, this woman with a fondness for the finer things in life (including sandwiches and tubs full of potato salad) couldn’t float a proper note, but — as revealed in the move’s touching and artful conclusion — the songs in her head rang crystal clear.