It takes a lot of skill to sound as bad as Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who dreamed of becoming a great opera singer. The only catch: she couldn’t carry a tune. But that didn’t stop Jenkins from believing that she was much, much better than she was, producing a record and eventually performing live at Carnegie Hall. That is, all thanks to her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, who kept her dream alive and Jenkins far from the truth.
Jenkins’ true story is the basis for Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe-nominated performance -- her 30th nomination -- in the delightful biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins, which earned a total of four Golden Globe nominations and is now available on Blu-Ray and digital HD.
“This movie is about aiming for the F above high C regardless of what note you may land on,” Simon Helberg said in a statement to ET, in reaction to his Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture, adding: “Meryl is a God.”
While Streep has no shortage of talent, Florence’s off-key vocals did require the actress to train with a vocal coach in order to match the wannabe opera singer’s unique sound. Recommended by Broadway star Audra McDonald, who co-starred with Streep in Ricki and the Flash, Streep turned to renowned vocal teacher Arthur J. Levy, who has worked with the likes of McDonald, Stockard Channing, Lauren Graham and Lea Michele.
While some actors rely on vocal tricks to achieve a desired effect, Levy tells ET that when it came to Streep, it was all natural talent combined with hard work. To be able to sing for the film, Levy didn’t strip anything away, instead he focused on “getting her voice to its perfect state” so they could expand Streep’s vocal range. “The only deconstructionism was taking a beautiful high C for Meryl and making it unbeautiful, but in a specific way,” he says.
When it came to songs like “The Bell Song” and “Queen of the Night’s Aria,” Streep was offered lower keys to be able to sing in her range. Instead, she opted for the highest key, which added credibility to her voice. “The lower keys might have been a little too easy and possibly a little too lovely,” Levy says. “We’re dealing with a ratio of bad.”
The key to making Streep sound authentic was not imitating Jenkins. “I prepared by learning the arias, to sing them as well as I possibly could,” Streep told IndieWire and then studying the way Jenkins sang the music. “She was very specific about where Florence didn’t make the note or made the wrong note,” Levy says. “I don’t think the exact sound quality was reproduced because that would have been, maybe objectionable parodying.”
“When you are unique, you move to the head of the class,” Levy adds. “And I think Florence did it, in her weirdo way.”