You’d have to be a crazy person to doubt Meryl Streep, but I have to admit that a small part of me wasn’t sure she could pull off “boozy singer with an American flag tattoo on her back who fronts a cover band at an divey L.A. bar”. Not that she couldn’t imitate the mannerisms of seasoned she-rockers like Bonnie Raitt or Melissa Etheridge, or that her vocals wouldn’t be good enough (I knew from Mamma Mia that she could sing—at least well enough to let her acting make up for the deficiencies)—but could she seem sufficiently lived-in? Could she convince us that she feels at home on that stage? That those leather pants, motorcycle boots, and braids aren’t just a costume, but an expression of her authentic self?
Of course she could. She’s Meryl “bleepin’” Streep.
She plays the self-dubbed Ricki Rendazzo (née Linda Brummel), who left her husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and her teenage kids to chase a rock and roll dream. She put out one album, which didn’t go anywhere, but the dream never really died. And some ten years later, she has a band—The Flash—and a lead guitar player (Rick Springfield) she’s occasionally sleeping with, and that regular gig at the watering hole, which she supplements by working as a cashier at “Total Foods”. And even if she’s living paycheck to paycheck, she’s still happy in her own way, especially since she’s convinced herself that it’s not her fault she never sees her grown kids because it’s them who want nothing to do with her.
Everything changes when Pete calls to tell her that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Meryl’s real-life daughter, in a juicy part) has been dumped by her husband and has spiraled into a deep depression. Although she's flat broke, Ricki flies out to Indianapolis in a last-ditch attempt to be there for Julie and reconnect with her two sons, both of whom have surprises: Joshua (Sebastian Stan) is engaged to a woman Ricki has never met and Adam (Nick Westrate), has been proudly out of the closet for years.
One thing I liked about the script: I’ve never seen a film where a parent was actually afraid of her own children, but Ricki feels so disconnected from her kids, and perhaps so guilty for abandoning them, she dreads seeing them.
“My kids hate me,” she groans to Springfield’s Greg at one point.
“It’s not your kids’ job to love you,” says Greg, who is prone to spouting earthy wisdom. “It’s your job to love them.”
Springfield, it should be noted, holds his own against Meryl, even if his character is a bit too romanticized to be believed. And he’s an almost preternaturally young-looking 65, still handsome and fit enough to strut around on stage in an open leather vest. (Eat your heart out, Jessie's girl, wherever you may be.)
Ricki and the Flash was written by Diablo Cody (Juno) and directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) and it merges their sensibilities, to (mostly) winning effect. As is often the case in Cody’s films, our hero sees the pursuit of coolness—in this case, rock and roll—as being in conflict with family life. But Cody has always been a little conservative and her films tend to suggest that being cool is rarely as fulfilling as—or at least not incompatible with—the love and comfort of family. That being said, Ricki does make a slightly drunken, but trenchant speech where she argues that women who leave their children are branded as social monsters, whereas rockers like Mick Jagger—who has multiple children with several different women—are applauded as rascals and rebels.
As for Demme, his love of music—he directed the great Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, as well as a few rock documentaries— is evident throughout. There are several scenes of Ricki performing with the Flash and while there’s often some bit of interpersonal drama playing out on stage, sometimes the music is simply there to be enjoyed. A scene where Ricki gets high with Pete and Julie showcases the director’s knack for creating loose, warm, and intimate interactions among family members, as he did so well in Rachel Getting Married.
Ricki and the Flash is not a great film—it’s prone to corniness, like a final scene where uptight squares let down their hair and rock out that wouldn’t feel out of place in Dirty Dancing—but it’s a highly entertaining one. Kline is his usual reliable self as the solid guy who loves his wife, but still holds a bit of a torch for his ex. And Streep makes us care about Ricki even when she’s being a stubborn jerk. It’s another astonishing performance by her, in a film just good enough to deserve it.