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Is Meryl Streep a Good Singer?

She sings terribly in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins,’ and that’s exactly the point

AP Images
AP Images

As recently as 10 years ago, “Meryl Streep sings in a lot of movies” was trivia — a meaningless fun fact to bring up at parties. (I go to bad parties.) But in the past decade or so, “Meryl Streep sings in a lot of movies” has ramped up. What was once a vague “I’m Meryl Streep and I like to sing” inclination has evolved, seemingly overnight, into an explicit “I’m Meryl Streep and if you bring me a script that doesn’t involve singing I will cut you” game plan.

And it’s been great. But if we’re going to continue down this road with her, it’s imperative that we first ask one question.

Is Meryl Streep a good singer?

Let’s go to the tape:

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Silkwood (1983) and Ironweed (1987)?

Silkwood and Ironweed are the two sides of Streep’s breakthrough double album, Meryl Streep Will Sing To You Now For Some Reason and By “You” I Mean “Cher and Jack Nicholson” and By “For Some Reason” I Mean “To Break Up the Sadcore Monotony of Her ’80s Career Choices.”

Not all breakthrough albums deserve to break through.

VERDICT: NO and NO (0–2)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Postcards From the Edge (1990)?

A couple of things. First: Jesus Christ.

Second: Meryl Streep nailing “I’m Checkin’ Out” is underrated. Most people assume that aping country is easy — that it’s as simple as playing a little dress-up and laying on some twang. But listen to enough country music and you can spot a fraud a mile away. The streets of Hollywood — one need not look very far — are littered with embarrassing Famous Person Country Singer performances. That Streep avoids this trap is not only a triumph of skill; it’s one of affection. And when it comes to singing, affection is a skill all its own.

Postcards From the Edge is Meryl Streep’s country record, and she knocks it out of the park — a complete and iconic salvation of “Meryl Streep, Singer” from its depressive ’80s period.

VERDICT: YES (1–2)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Death Becomes Her (1992)?

Quick “ARE YOU A LEGEND OF THE HIGHEST AND MOST UNQUALIFIED ORDER” test:

(1) Can you pull off a song called “Me”?

VERDICT: YES (2–2)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Marvin’s Room (1996)?

“That’s odd,” you’re thinking to yourself. “Meryl Streep doesn’t sing in Marvin’s Room. Why is Marvin’s Room on here? Is this a bad Drake joke?” (No.) “Well then why is it here?”

Wow, thank you. I’m glad you asked. You’re finally starting to understand how deep this Meryl Streep singing shit goes. Here’s how deep: MERYL STREEP, WHOSE CHARACTER DOES NOT SING ONE NOTE IN MARVIN’S ROOM, CUT A RECORD WITH CARLY SIMON FOR THE MARVIN’S ROOM SOUNDTRACK.

Take a second and consider what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about Meryl Streep going up to the producers of Marvin’s Room and saying, “Yo — this movie is not working.” And then the producers of Marvin’s Room saying, “What’s the problem?” And then Meryl Streep saying, “We need a theme song about two little sisters called ‘Two Little Sisters’ by me and Carly Simon.” And then the producers of Marvin’s Room saying, “For sure. That makes sense.” And then Meryl Streep saying, “I know.” And then the producers of Marvin’s Room saying, “Will it be a banger?” And then Meryl Streep saying, “Yes, it will be a banger.”

She told no lies.

VERDICT: YES (3–2)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Angels in America (2003) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006)?

Angels in America is a masterpiece. Robert Altman is a king.

VERDICT: NO and NO (3–4)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Mamma Mia! (2008)?

Mamma Mia! is Meryl Streep’s Born in the U.S.A.: an important artist at the peak of her powers, betting it all on a full-blown pop record. It’s a great bet. Did you know that, until Avatar, Mamma Mia! was the highest grossing movie of all time (… in the U.K.)? Mamma Mia! is — peace to Sweden, peace to Broadway, peace to someone financing my “Why didn’t Amanda Seyfried happen” documentary, peace to Phyllida Lloyd — A Jerry Springer episode with ABBA songs. And yet it still grossed $610 million worldwide.

How is that even possible? Pierce Brosnan gives one of the least appealing high-profile singing performances in recent movie memory. Most of the rest of the cast is an aggressively “I looked up ‘musical’ 10 minutes ago at the hotel” sort of mediocre. There is no way Mamma Mia! should work. And yet it does.

And it does because Meryl Streep … brings it.

There is not one good reason for Meryl Streep to go this hard in a 2008 musical rom-com. What does she have to prove? (There weren’t even “I’ve still got it” stakes: The Devil Wears Prada was two years earlier.) None of this makes any sense. From every possible perspective, Mamma Mia! should have been a paycheck role — a nice little Gummer family vacation (Greece is beautiful during wedding season) with $10 million attached. Instead, we got what might be — and this is saying something — the most actively engaged performance in the Meryl Streep canon.

The above clip — of Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters doing “Dancing Queen” — is, for my money, the signature Meryl Streep Singing Document. And it’s also the most succinct definition I’ve found of what separates “Meryl Streep, Actor” from “Meryl Streep, Singer.” This is the key: As an actor, Meryl Streep is generous beyond parallel. But as a singer? Meryl Streep is RUTHLESS. She’s vicious, and try-hard, and ball-hogging and insecure. At singing, Meryl Streep is simply not a genius — and that’s exactly why her singing is such a delight. When Meryl Streep sings, she doesn’t have to carry the weight of her genius with her. She can just be all right, and striving, and improving, and free.

And freedom gives no fucks. Pay attention to what happens in the “Dancing Queen” clip at the 1:55 mark. Up till then, Streep has been content to let Baranski and Walters have the spotlight. They’re on lead vocals for the first two verses; Streep doesn’t even start singing at all until over a minute in. But once Streep gets a taste of that “Dancing Queen” chorus, she is like Gollum creeping near his ring — you can see the flames in her eyes start to flicker with purpose. And by the time the chorus comes to an end, and that third verse hits — well, it’s already over. Streep digs in, snatches the song out of thin air, and doesn’t let go.

VERDICT: YES (4–4)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Into the Woods (2014)?

And then it all goes off the rails.

No performance shows the downside of Streep’s singing thirst as much as her turn as Witch in Into the Woods. There are a couple of obvious problems here: First of all, you’re Meryl Streep. You shouldn’t be in a tepidly reviewed ensemble musical to begin with. You got the nomination, sure — but did it really feel good to chase an Oscar in Supporting? It’s fine; it’s just disappointing. But that’s what Singing Streep does when given too much rope: She makes wild decisions, irrespective of the consequences. Singing Streep has a tunnel vision more powerful than Acting Streep’s mere “pursuit of excellence” ever could be. Singing Streep is premised on one absolute goal, absolutely: singing, a fuck of a lot, a fuck of a lot of the time. It’s a gift and a curse.

And the second problem here is … well …

Nah.

VERDICT: NO (4–5)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Ricki and the Flash (2015)?

When Ricki and the Flash was announced, Singing Streep novices assumed it would be a “cute” family comedy with a “cute” hook: “Meryl Streep playing a rock singer.”

They knew nothing and were wrong.

All you have to know about Ricki and the Flash is this: THEY PLAY THE ENTIRE SONGS. “American Girl”? Entire song. “Cold One”? Entire song. “My Love Will Not Let You Down”? Literal climax of the movie and I cried and entire song. “Drift Away”? Only a small snippet.

Haha, just kidding, they play the entire goddamn song.

Ricki and the Flash is essentially a fake concert movie for a fake band fronted by a fake version of Meryl Streep. There is no reason for it to exist.

And even less reason for it to be perfect.

VERDICT: YES (5–5)

Is Meryl Streep a good singer in … Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)?

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep plays the titular New York heiress who, though cursed with a terrible voice, takes singing lessons in the hopes of becoming an opera singer. It’s a pretty good movie, with an ingenious understanding of 2010s Streep: confident; over it (over what? it); to herself searingly true. And yet — while many will no doubt praise Streep for giving an “unflattering” performance — I think we all know the truth: Florence Foster Jenkins is pure flattery.

“Unflattering” would have been if Florence’s singing were … “a little off.” “Unflattering” would have been if Florence was simply “not good enough for opera.” But Florence’s voice isn’t just “a little off.” And it isn’t just “not good enough for opera.”

She’s bad.

And Streep, crucially, plays it bad at full tilt: missing every note by cartoonish margins; exuding the broadest obliviousness with every gesture; singing offkey onto the outer edges of scarcely singing. Which is to say that Streep’s performance in Florence is not an unflattering one at all — and instead represents the final, inevitable stage of an actor realizing they’re a good singer: singing “badly” on purpose.

Maybe it’s best if we consider Streep in Florence, not just as a performance, but as an accumulation: of all of those early-period “she’s singing? again?” roles; of all of those middle-period “Carly Simon soundtrack” excursions; and of all of those late-period “OK, but only because it’s Meryl” musicals. It is a movie as a marker that Streep is free to perform “singing badly” now — because we now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Streep really can sing. In this sense, one might argue that the entire subtext of Florence Foster Jenkins is how good of a singer Meryl Streep is. And that the film isn’t a brave flirtation with dissonance so much as it is a brilliantly executed (and, yes, slickly calculated) anti-pop record.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a movie about how it takes true futility to know true genius, and vice versa. It is “Meryl Streep, Singer” and “Meryl Streep, Actor,” finally converging as one.

VERDICT: YES (6–5)

FINAL VERDICT: Meryl Streep is a good singer.