Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins is, perhaps as a bit of a surprise, neither blindly naive nor cynical. It’s a surprise because the true story itself — Jenkins was an heiress who sang “The Magic Flute” like a magic kazoo and booked a show at Carnegie Hall — has plenty of cynicism embedded in it. While one of the trailers for the film made it the look like an unquestionably motivational story about self-love and dreaming big, the story retains its inherently dark implications about class and the privilege of delusion:
That reaction is inevitable, because today’s news cycle is dominated by a certain unqualified megalomaniac, who, as John Oliver put it, is “what happens when the Secret gets into the wrong hands.” In this climate, the dauntless ambitions of the rich and infamous are hard to accept as anything but sinister, their whims an unstoppable American force that can bulldoze any barrier, while the lives of the less fortunate often seem to be made of nothing but barriers.
Florence Foster Jenkins therefore ends up having two effects at once — it is, firstly, a sweet, humane character portrait that’s a corrective to a legacy that was a national joke. The movie, which takes place in the 1940s, sees Jenkins (played by Meryl Streep) as an eccentric septuagenarian society woman with a passion for singing opera animalistically, rendering all foreign languages gibberish. This passion is inflicted upon her much younger husband, played by Hugh Grant complicating the “gold digger” role with heart, as well as on her wealthy friends in private recitals. However, when a recording she’s made goes 1940s-style viral (radio!), she gets the opportunity to sing at — and fill — Carnegie Hall. While she’s obviously privileged by an inheritance from her father, she’s also led a life of physical and romantic disadvantage, after having gotten syphilis at a very young age.
It turns out you can’t capture the complexity of FFJ’s story — or at least the complexity with which the film imbues it — in a trailer: the film, albeit not without its cloying moments, manages to make Jenkins’ delusions simultaneously beautiful, silly, and wholly individual. The film is mindful of the privilege that allowed her singing ego trip to take place, while also sympathetic to her. Meryl Streep imbues the clunky chanteuse with genuine passion, with an emphasis on the transcendent effects of music on her spirit, rather than on her “artistry” arising from vanity.
I’ve seen Florence Foster Jenkins being compared to a 194os Rebecca Black — and it’s an apt comparison. But Jenkins’ legacy comes from her being an anomaly at the time: these days, it seems there’s so much accidentally hilarious material created and shared via, say, YouTube that so much of our existence starts to seem an accidental joke. The cultural love of “so bad it’s good” — a culture that, don’t get me wrong, I also thoroughly enjoy and partake in — was what both blinded people to Donald Trump’s initial rise to power and also facilitated it. When “so bad it’s good” is an attitude that puts governance at risk, it becomes just so bad it’s sickening.
The “artists” and more frequently entertainers who either have a ton of money or come from a ton of money are inevitably the ones who don’t need to rely nearly as much on talent. Recall when Paris Hilton first did The Simple Life, then released an album. Recall when Lindsay Lohan released an album. Think about Shia Labeouf’s attempts to gather as many hyphens as humanly possible. Think of Kim Kardashian’s selfies becoming a Rizzoli art book. Think of how our fascination with the wealthy has brought about programming even beyond Keeping Up with the Kardashians: the Shahs of Sunset, and #Rich Kids. None of these shows are watched for the purposes of experiencing someone’s talent. They are watched for the purposes of experiencing how wealth can enable someone to fill an hour of airtime with air, a national platform devoted to pure vacuity.
Then of course think about how our current Republican presidential candidate used to host a show based on his wealth and business acumen, how he’s even brought participants in that show into his political campaign, and how many times you’ve heard the expression, “reality’s weirder than fiction during this election.” Our entertainment-sector notion of reality has fluidly transferred over to political reality. Incidentally, this all seems to have led Kanye — obviously an endlessly talented musician and producer, and also obviously not a politician — to think it’s an equally good idea to run for President in 2020, which he’s stated he plans on doing numerous times.
The delusions of these individuals of course arises from our culture’s extremes of wealth and celebrity. For these folks, The Secret does work. For others, the belief in oneself that Florence Foster Jenkins showed will only get you so far. As noted in Hyperallergic, a survey in 2014 that followed 12,000 individuals for a few decades to chart their professional choices and growth found that the majority of artists came from higher income households than did the children of people who’d ultimately go into agriculture, food service, and child and home care. They were not, however, from ultra-rich families — those were the producers of lawyers, finance analysts, and judges: ultimately, the survey showed that wealth stayed relatively constant from generation to generation, and was yet another series of data debunking the American myth of self-creation and class mobility.
Florence Foster Jenkins made me long for a future where delusion — one of the aspects of the human mind that’s at once beautiful and troubling — can seem less of the latter. In that future, the freedom to imagine oneself as something greater is not limited to the ultra-rich, nor is it a threat to society, but rather legitimately a means of self-preservation, improvement, and happiness. It’s just that right now, talentlessness and inexperience have overtaken America, with the rest of us under its boot. When there are no checks on the power of individuals and their capital, there are no checks on their fantasies, and that’s more shudder-inducing than the even most gruesomely botched aria.