Paramount Pictures 110 minutes PG-13
We were wary about having to sit through hearing opera sung off key, even by the immensely talented Academy Award winner, Meryl Streep. But she and her co-stars, the charming Hugh Grant and the quirky, but very musically talented, Simon Helberg, (Big Bang Theory), pull you right into the remarkable story of Florence Foster Jenkins. As both Grant and Helberg say, Streep can do anything and she proves it here, even though she freely admits she can’t golf and has a healthy dislike for the game. No problem.
We screened the film with Helberg in attendance at Chicago’s Music Box Theater where it is currently playing. (Check your local listings) He plays Cosme McMoon, an accomplished concert pianist who is hired to accompany Jenkins and his reactions to her trying to sing the complicated classical arias are priceless. Click here soon to hear Helberg tell about getting the part and working with Streep.
Helberg says he jumped at the chance to be in a film with Streep and Grant and even got to live the dream of rehearsing at the Beatles’ studio Abbey Road in London. They actually recorded all the music there, but then director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), decided to shoot them playing and singing together live! Helberg says that although that was nerve wracking, he was amazed at how Streep would attack the music over and over again, doing different takes each time. The real F.F. Jenkins designed her own elaborate costumes, including angelic wings, which Streep gets to wear. But they did pad the slim Streep’s body to look more like the zaftig singer.
Helberg was also excited about working with Hugh Grant, who he says was just as neurotic about working with Streep as he was. Grant was coaxed out of retirement to play Jenkins’ “husband” St. Clair Bayfield, because he liked the script and the chance to work with Streep, too. Streep says Jenkins and Bayfield had a loving relationship for 35 years.
Grant says he actually heard a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins which was sent to him by a buddy as a joke years before and thought it was the funniest thing he ever heard. Just for the record, her recording is one of the most requested at the Library of Congress. Grant says he saw it on David Bowie’s list of top 25. Jenkins is known as the “worst” singer ever to play Carnegie Hall. It was a concert she put together, designed the costumes for and sold the tickets herself. It made history.
Grant is glad he didn’t have to sing in this film, but he did have to dance. The only other time he had to do that was in Love Actually. He says he took swing lessons and actually does a pretty credible job, even looks like he enjoyed it.
The film shows how, as a couple, they had an odd, but totally devoted relationship. She was an heiress with tons of money in the early 1900’s who was passionate about singing. She really believed it was her calling. He helped her create her concerts with elaborate sets and costumes for her society friends and ladies organizations. Women at that time didn’t build businesses, but used money to foster the arts. She created some 60 women’s clubs in New York City where she could sing to a captive audience and raise money for charitable causes.
Streep says every music student she’s ever met is familiar with Jenkins reputation and her recordings. The actress worked with Broadway star Audra McDonald’s voice coach. She says she first tried to sing the arias “right” and then “we went off.” Not easy to do. She and Helberg developed a good working relationship. Streep calls him a brilliant comic and says the movie “just comes alive when he comes on screen.” He sees things from the audience’s point of view, while playing these very difficult pieces, plus acting and reacting to what she is doing.
Helberg told us that his favorite scene is where Jenkins comes to visit Cosme in his apartment in their one scene alone together was the most difficult. They were nervous and awkward until he said they found some common ground which ends in a sweet piano duet.
Is this worth your bucks? Director Frears has created a beautifully done film with good costuming,a street scenes of old New York and first class performances. It’s fun to see Streep take on difficult classical operas and sing them with abandon just badly enough to make you cringe. Helberg’s playing is impressive and the faces he makes reacting to Jenkins’ painful notes are hilarious. He won us over immediately. Streep does sing all the right notes at the end over the credits. Just goes to show, you have to sing good to sing bad.