Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Meryl Foster Streepkins or, How to sing out of tune without really trying


Well, this is becoming a dangerously frequent event. It’s only a year since I was last taken to the cinema and, today, yes, I’ve just been again. That’s five films in five years. Way above my lifetime average.

My last times in a movie theatre were in Berlin. In that huge, glamorous, popcorn-filled, 3D-specced cinema complex at the Potsdamer Platz. 

Today was a little different. Yamba, NSW doesn’t run to multi-salle complexes. We have one deliciously old-fashioned little cinema, which my friend Robert says he’s been attending since the 50s … and it just happens to be right opposite his house!  So we rendez-voused at 4pm for a wee drappie and, then, crossed the road for a 4.30 movie.

Now, you mustn’t think I’m an easy touch. I wouldn’t have crossed the road for just any movie. I mean car-chases, any sort of guns, love stories, ‘action’, anything noisy, anything sloppy, most things American … forget it. I can’t believe Paul subjected me to Jurassic Park! But this was a film from my world. Sort of.

Florence Foster Jenkins. I don’t understand why the world has suddenly ‘discovered’ her after all these years. I heard her peculiar recordings in about 1960 and dismissed them as a curiosity. Which is what they are. All claims in the film’s after-notes to the contrary.

But, in the 21st century, several folk have decided to use Mrs Jenkins’s recordings as the bases for what I assume are semi- or largely fictional dramatic works. This one, which boasts the name of Meryl Streep above the title (oh, and Hugh Grant too) is the most publicised and, well, it was across the road so, at precisely 4.30 today, we went in (‘hurry up, you’re missing the trailers’) and sat comfortably down …

It’s a darling wee cinema, and it was a nice wee film. I’ve no idea if it has any relation to fact (I suspect not), but it made up into an enjoyable, if rather slow-paced, story. Rich, society lady desperate for ‘art’ presents herself at Carnegie Hall in a coloratura concert with the help of a fond, but opportunist, young ‘husband’ and a striving young pianist … and dies, as we are made to believe, from a bad review.

Well, you’ld throw that plotline out right away if you were Darryl Zannuck. Red Shoes, Schmed shoes. But the present writer(s?) and director have kind of made it work. With the help of a very starry line up. Meryl Streep is Mrs Jenkins. I have only seen Ms Streep once before, as a rather iffy witch in Into the Woods. Here, she is much, much better. Warm, trusting, striving, touching  … you are on her side, even when she gets up and blissfully sings horribly off pitch. She doesn’t make the woman into a fool and a vanity … in the very best moments of the film you hear her singing as SHE thinks she sounds … and it is grand.
Hugh Grant has no part to play. Just a two-dimensional sweet and smiley man, which he can do with his hands off the handlebars. But the wowee of the cast is Simon Helberg (who, I was almost sorry to discover afterwards, is a well known telly actor) as her pianist. The film almost became his story. Which actually might have been more fun.

But, in the end, it all came out as a nice, little film. Conveniently acted and … well, sung? It is very difficult to sing off pitch intentionally. Surely the singing was dubbed. But I see no one credited for any of the vocals  … Marni Nixon maybe? But, whatever…

So, I hardly looked at my watch at all. A rare thing in a cinema. And I really didn’t groan internally too much, except at the lack of continuity in the Carnegie Hall audience scenes and Agnes Stark’s far-too-common outburst. Well, maybe the very one-dimensional representation of Toscanini and the singing coach from wherever, were a bit thin. And there were some other minor actor failures. But the film isn’t about the bit players. It’s about Ms Streep, and MM Helberg and Grant. And someone’s take on a 76 year-old lady (yes, that was her age at death) named Mrs Jenkins, whom we thankfully heard singing, in propria persona, in the tactful epilogue. You know, she wasn’t quite as awful as I’d remembered.

But I am rather left with the feeling: why make a film, fictional or partly true, about the lady? Who was never, in spite of what the publicity says ‘an opera singer’. Or around her name, anyhow.

Never mind. It was an OK hour and a big bit, followed by an excellent dinner with my pal at my favourite resto … and I’m home now, with Roland Garros and a little pink wine feeling quite content …

I wonder what my film for 2017 will be ..

Post (a few hours) scriptum: I have just been told that Ms Streep's singing voice was her own! My admiration is simply boundless ... that is a helluva feat. I wonder if they used one of the pitch-hitching machines to un-pitch-hitch her!

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