It’s kind of amazing that someone would dare to make a movie which works so diligently to showcase bad singing. Even more amazing is that I found myself wanting to see it. Perhaps most amazing of all is that it worked. Really well. I’m not sure how true to life the story really is, but the movie makes for a compelling, thought-provoking and inspiring story of an amazing woman. Slight disclaimer here: if you’re expecting something like The King’s Speech (which we were)—this isn’t it. This movie is campy, cheeky and a bit over the top, especially at the beginning. If you can get past the beginning though, it’s almost worth seeing just for McMoon’s facial expressions alone. For all its comedic light-heartedness though, there is tenderness and heart beneath that and a surprising amount of depth.
Florence loved music. It was her life. She studied it, trained in it, practiced it, performed it, and gave countless sums of money to support it. She was also terrible at it. Truly awful. Probably tone deaf. Her lack of ability didn’t stop her from pouring herself into it, however, and not just as a spectator and a patron, but also as a participant. Here’s part of what is intriguing about her story: did she know how bad she was? How could she not? Was she in denial or just truly unaware? It seems impossible that she could be so naïve, but her husband and her musical coaches praised her talents endlessly. Whitey, her husband, went so far as to pay off the critics and her audiences so that nothing but praise was allowed to reach her ears. Florence commented, “It is true that a lot of singers my age seem to be on the decline, but I seem to get better and better! … [I’m so blessed.]” When she asked her vocal coach if she was ready for a concert, he replied, “You’ve never been more ready.” Which might be technically true, but was also misleading.
In our day and age of “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up,” and our criticisms of that mentality, Florence Foster Jenkins raises an interesting question: Did anyone do her any favors by praising her when she had no talent? Would it have been better for her to have heard the truth, that she was really terrible?
In many respects, they were lying to her. They were feeding her delusions of grandeur. On the other hand, they were protecting her. Her love of music is what kept her going and sustained her health despite her battle with a terminal illness. As for delusions of grandeur, Florence wanted to perform for the love of singing and performing, for the love of music itself. She wanted to delight others with what delighted her. She was less inspired by a need for fame and more by a need to bless others with music. There was a pure heart in that, but a misguided one thinking that her voice would be the agent of blessing.
Whitey and McMoon (Florence’s pianist) had some interesting discussions about this very thing. Whitey told him that once he realized he could be good, but not great as an actor, he “was free from the tyranny of ambition.” He goes on to ask McMoon, “Is our life not happy? Is it not fun?” He was fully aware of the limitations of his ability, and Florence’s as well. In some ways that freed him. He didn’t have to be perfect. He didn’t have to be the best. He got to act for the love of it, pure and simple. He didn’t have to take himself too seriously anymore. And he supposed Florence’s passion of music for the same reasons. It wasn’t that he thought she would be ever be great, but he knew how much she loved it. He said that Florence had the “truest voice”. Maybe not the greatest, but it was the truest for the heart that was behind it. That, to him, made her voice entirely priceless.
A copy of Florence’s recording made it to a studio and was played on the air, quickly rising to popularity. It was like one of those bad American Idol auditions that is so bad it becomes popular for the pure hilarity of it. Florence didn’t realize that, though. She assumed people loved it and decided to do a concert and to give away a thousand tickets to service men. Again you see her pure heart that loved music and wanted to bless people with it. The problem with this was that Whitey couldn’t control the audience anymore, not with a thousand service men in attendance, not with it being truly open to the public. “I think this might be too much for [your health],” he cautioned, still trying to protect her from a crushing reality that people were laughing at her. She didn’t hesitate, “Well, if Mr. Churchill had adopted that attitude, then Hitler would be standing on Buckingham palace!!” Florence didn’t care what it would cost her, if only she could bless others with music.
McMoon had great reservations about playing for her during her concert. He still took himself seriously. He was afraid that playing for her would ruin his reputation, would keep people from taking him seriously as a musician. Again, Whitey challenged McMoon to “stand by [his] patron [and friend] in her hour of need.” When the time came, Florence was the one who lost heart. Whitey reminded her why she was doing it. It wasn’t for herself. It wasn’t for fame. It was for “those men out there. They’ve seen horrors… They need joy. They need music. [They need you.]” And McMoon told her, “We can do this.” She wasn’t alone.
So they did. They performed for the sake of those soldiers, for the sake of sharing the joy of music with others. And people laughed. The worst-case scenario. The one she feared, the one everyone around her had been protecting her from—people laughed at her.
There was a woman in the audience however who had seen Florence before. This same woman had herself been caught off guard by Florence the first time she heard her. She saw this very sincere woman, singing her heart out, truly believing she had a talent, at a much acclaimed concert, and yet…what she heard was AWFUL. She wasn’t expecting that. She couldn’t control her laughter and had to leave the room. We don’t have a lot of context for that sort of performance. It wasn’t a spoof, it was a true concert, but it lacked the talent of a true performance. How do you respond when you go to something expecting excellence and discover it’s truly bad, but they are still trying their hardest? There’s no grid for that. Bad performances are supposed to be parodies.
It was that woman, the very one who had laughed at Florence before, who stood up in that concert and defended Florence. Something about Florence’s sincerity touched her. Something about her willingness to give her heart and soul and all her energy to something, regardless of how meager the fruit of such a labor might be. She seemed to get it—the performance wasn’t about Florence’s talent, but about her heart. That was her offering. So this brassy blonde stood up and yelled at all those service men in a way only she could have and said, “Applaud you a**holes. She’s singing her heart out!” She shamed them for their lack of respect and they quieted and turned their mocking into cheering, encouraging Florence to continue.
After her performance, Florence asked Whitey, “Was everyone laughing at me the whole time?” His loving reply was simply, “I was never laughing at you. Yours was the truest voice I’ve ever heard.” Then Florence had the humility and courage to say, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.” Would she have been able to hear the truth, that she wasn’t a good singer? Maybe. She seems to get it in the end, that the point wasn’t her talent, but her willingness. Her heart was her offering, and only those willing to look past the rather poor wrapping of her voice were able to truly receive the gift that was enclosed within it.
I would like to have some teachable something to give you with this review, but I think for me I have more questions than answers…and a few things to simply ponder.
- One of Florence’s critics and scoffers, the blonde, became the first to defend her. So often we want to insulate ourselves from the critics, but how often would they become fans and supporters if we were only willing to let them into the show a second time (so to speak)?
- What’s the line between lying to someone and protecting them? Should people have told Florence how bad she was?
- It’s hard to be attached to something that’s just bad. In our world, we praise excellence, and surely we should. However, it’s interesting to note that Florence’s recording was Melotone records’ biggest seller of all time. Her performance at Carnegie Hall is their most requested performance of all time. And McMoon’s career never surpassed what he did with Florence. We love excellence, but then again, God often uses the simple to shame the wise. Had McMoon not been willing to perform for someone who was less than excellent, he would have remained in obscurity forever.
- There is something so powerful in purity of heart and a willingness to give everything we have, no matter how meager what we have may be. Was it not the widow who gave her solitary mite that we remember as a symbol of greatness in giving? Again with the question of excellence—what if the widow had decided not to give because what she had was so small? What if Florence had decided not to sing because her voice wasn’t good enough? And look what did happen because they gave what they had, never questioning if it was big enough, perfect enough, excellent or impressive enough…. Do we take ourselves too seriously, far more concerned with our talents than with simply our love of doing something in the first place? What if Florence had known how bad she was? What if she hadn’t sung at Carnegie? How many people would have missed out on the blessing and the joy of that evening—both in the audience, and those who have heard the recording since…and even now those who see the movie?
- Do we offer our talents to the world or do we actually offer our heart to the world? How often does heart make up for what’s lacking in talent anyway? What does it take to offer our hearts? What does that mean, for you and for me, in our own lives?
- When all is said and done, will you and I be able to say with Florence, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing” (only replace “sing” with whatever it is you have offered to the world. When people criticize us, and they will, what will they have to criticize us for?