Clutching the microphone hotly in their hands, they totter up onto the stage on skyscraper high heels, threads of sparkly dress clinging to their nubile forms. They wait nervously for the backing to crank up, then they open their mouths and are away, hoping to sway the judges. In truth, many of them sound okay in the lower registers – their voices quite acceptable, if generic. But, as the chorus builds, oral orifices are extended to their widest and they commence to emit such atonal screeching that they are a danger to eardrum and glassware everywhere. On cue the adoring over-excited teenage audience erupt in rapturous applause and they holler ecstatic approval as the judges fist pump and start dancing on their chairs. Invariably all seats are turned or, ‘It’s a yes from me!’ is uttered in unison. I call them the squawkers. I can’t stand them. Just ask my lovely lady. She’ll tell you.
Now, really, I don’t watch much of this sort of programming, but my little secret is that I am quite addicted to the chair turning section of ‘The Voice’. For me the ‘battles’ of that show are a real turn-off, but only last night I was sucked into the ‘lives’. In these each of the quartet of judges get to select one out of four of the remaining finalists from their team, based on performance. Sure enough, the first two judges both selected squawkers, despite the quite awesome talent ranged against them in competition. At least Delta and Ronan had a bit more taste. I doubt I’ll be sucked in again. It really does, in no way, resemble a test of talent if almost every female contestant who is shapely and can squawk gets a gong. I know full well any with a great country voice will be given their marching orders now that Keith Urban is no longer involved. I’ve also seen some terrific Jimmy Barnes-style belters not last any distance, despite them being arguably the male equivalent to the squawkers.
So where did this confusion first occur that squawking could be considered a hallmark of a singer with the chops to make it in the music business and conquer the world? Could it be sheeted home to the truly appalling (musically speaking) Florence Foster Jenkins?
Until now this trail-blazer was a woman known to only a few cultists who were familiar with her, the unwitting cause of one of the great hoaxes of history. But, as a result of two biopics on her being released almost simultaneously, she has crossed into the mainstream. And here’s something those of you who know me well would have thought I would never concede on a matter of cinematic quality – the English language take on her is somewhat better that the sub-titled one.
Both films, though, do make good viewing. It was just that one had Meryl Streep, one didn’t. Catherine Frot, who some consider to be held by the French in the same regard as Streep is by Hollywood, was terrific in her portrayal of Jenkins – the American just takes it to another level. Both, in being padded up for their roles, put me in mind of Susan Boyle, although in no way is that lady a squawker. She has the voice of a nightingale – these two actresses were just plain crows. I don’t know so much about Frot, but from what we know about MS in the excellent, but underrated, ‘Ricki and the Flash’, the Streepster can really belt it out most tunefully. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for her to produce the off-key barnyard hollerings and screeches required for the film.
The eponymous Anglo-American effort also had the advantage of being helmed by director Stephen Frears who possesses an excellent track record, including ‘The Queen’ and ‘Philomena’. It is also the one that sticks closest to the facts and has the added charms of Hugh Grant as Jenkin’s hubby in a marriage never consummated. He is in fine form doing his usual schtick, as well as some engaging soft shoe shuffle. But almost stealing the show is ‘Big Bang’ alumni, Simon Helberg, playing the diva’s pianist. His disbelief, on first acquaintance, at what comes out of her mouth is priceless.
In both productions the filthy rich FFJ is surrounded by sycophants praising, to the hilt, her anything but melodious singing for their own ends – usually a decent slice of her pie. Some feel sorry for her; some indeed love her, but are going along for the ride. The French version also has a sub-plot of a destitute vocal accompanist whose star rises as that of Madame Jenkin’s falls. This provides a modicum of youthful glamour that the other doesn’t require.
The real events happened during the years the Yanks were involved in World War Two; Jenkins giving her vocal dexterity a public airing at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for the GIs. Frot’s ‘Jenkins’ is set in France immediately after the prior global conflict and this time the charity were the veterans from that country. In it her name has been Frenchified to Marguerite Dumont. Andre Macon takes on the husband’s role, tying himself in knots, as does Grant, trying to come up with ways to keep the terrible truth in-house. In both the climax is a grand concert that brings the house of cards all tumbling down – albeit in two completely different ways.
Although both Frot’s and Streep’s Jenkins are silly women to the max, such is the skill of both actresses, the audience, by the end, are completely in their corners. It’s the way her vanity is seized upon and pandered to by those around Florence/Marguerite that, in part, causes this. Her husband(s) does it for another reason, other than to feather his own nest. It is interesting to check out the real FFJ on-line and YouTube her performances – although the end credits of the Streep film provide part illumination.
Yes, the french have been gazumped here in my view – just this once, mind you. But some reviewers have disagreed. Sandra Hall, for the Age, states that ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ ‘…is fun, but ‘Marguerite’ is the one that keeps you thinking about Florence’s yearnings long after her squawks have finally stopped ringing in your head’.
Now, if only those squawkers from ‘The Voice’ et al could be told the hard truth, as Jenkins should have been all those years ago.
Trailer – ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rRVCNffvKk
Trailer – ‘Marguerite’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jnr78V0se3s
The real lady on YouTube = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMu9PKWthLE