Before streaming music and social media, before American Idol and MTV, before even affordable record players or The Ed Sullivan Show, music still had its gatekeepers. In the pre-World War II decades most people had to venture out to hear music, to the clubs and concert halls that hung off the nighttime streets of cities like New York, and the dozen or more papers that clotted newsstands in those days were stuffed with critics’ reviews of these performances.
But sometimes, the gatekeepers didn’t matter. For most of the first half of the last century, a woman named Florence Foster Jenkins willed an inherited fortune, a self-cobbled web of social club music directorships, and a ferocious drive to sing into one of the most unlikely and confounding music careers ever documented.
Jenkins could not sing. Or at least, not well. By all contemporary accounts, she lacked even the most basic mechanics of pitch or rhythm. A cursory listen to her extant recordings – and there are many – confirms this. But, lacking the incessant and inescapable feedback loop that sizzles through our phones and computers today, and shielded by the friendly hand-picked audiences of her clubs, Jenkins thought herself equal to the most heralded singers of her day. She recorded one record after the next, interpreting their popularity as an affirmation of her self-perceived talent.
All of which led to her public and spectacularly memorable concert at New York’s storied and bursting Carnegie Hall on Oct. 25, 1944. The crowd and critical reaction that night – well, you can see what happened for yourself later this week.
On Friday, the actually surreally talented Meryl Streep (with Paramount Pictures and director Stephen Frears), brings Ms. Jenkins back to the stages of that long-ago city in Florence Foster Jenkins. The equally actually talented Hugh Grant escorts her into the maw as Jenkins’ manager and partner, St. Clair Bayfield. Check out the cut below for a bit more about making the movie and the actors’ thoughts on Jenkins.