Meryl Streep Fronts the Band in This Comedy of Rock and Redemption
DIRECTOR: JONATHON DEMME/2015
Ricki Randazzo (Meryl Streep) has one of the most prized treasures of this modern age: a chosen family. The lead singer of the house band at a California bar, Ricki doesn’t have youth, fame or money; but she is loved by her bandmates (including her lead guitarist boyfriend, Greg, played by Rick Springfield), adored by the young bartender (Ben Platt), and embraced by the patrons who come to see her perform. With her forever-80s hair and aging swagger Ricki might not be taken seriously everywhere, but here in this bar, with these people, she belongs.
But there is a problem with Ricki’s chosen family: she left another family behind to find this one. Years ago she chose to pursue her dream of being a musician, leaving her husband and three small children behind in Indianapolis. Now Ricki is barely a blip on the radar for her young adult daughter and two sons. They’ve been raised by their well-to-do father and his attentive second wife. Still, when Ricki’s daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) endures a bitter divorce, crippling depression and a suicide attempt, Ricki’s ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), decides that she might be able to help. And so it’s back to Indianapolis as Ricki attempts to rebuild bridges that she long ago burned.
The advertising for Ricki and the Flash does this movie no favors and my expectations were exceedingly low. But there is unexpected gold in this uplifting comedy of family dysfunction. The movie gains sympathy for Ricki not by making her a cooler-than-thou rock and roll rebel. She has reactionary political views, often says the wrong thing and wounds those around her, and seems uneasy in her own skin. She wears her leather, heavy makeup and loads of jewelry like armor. Meryl Streep makes Ricki likable in part because we see how fragile her ego is behind all of her bluster.
Streep is such a consistently great actress that we’ve all come to expect it from her. Nevertheless, it needs to be said: this is a great performance; funny, shrewd, and perfectly rough around the edges.
Rick Springfield is winning as Ricki’s tenderhearted, uncomplicated boyfriend; better than she probably deserves. As Julie, Gummer plays her depression as unfiltered, unwashed fury, and delivers some of the movies funniest lines as she pokes at every raw nerve in her family. Audra McDonald also stands out as Maureen, the beloved step-mother. She is no-nonsense in reminding Ricki who has really parented this family, and she’s absolutely right. But she’s also the one who recognizes that there may yet be a place for this prodigal mother. If there is a weak spot in the cast, it’s Kevin Kline. His fussy, respectable character feels a bit cliché, and it’s hard to imagine how he and Ricki wound up together in the first place.
Diablo Cody’s script is witty without the precious quirkiness of Juno. The gap between Ricki’s threadbare existence and the upscale privilege enjoyed by her children (and the customers at the Whole Foods knock off where Ricki works to make rent) is carefully observed and mined both for humor and real insight. When Ricki, hoping to attend her son’s wedding, shops for an appropriate dress at a thrift store it looks and feels like real poverty, not artifice.
Ricki and the Flash offers something else: great music. These gray haired and grizzled performers are at their best covering the music of their youth (Tom Petty, Edgar Winter, the Rolling Stones), but they try to stay relevant with Pink and Lady Gaga. Not every song is a complete winner, but the film uses serious musicians (Springfield, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell and Joe Vitale) – and Meryl Streep rises to the occasion, delivering her vocals with grit and conviction. The performances are vibrant, capturing on film the joy that comes through music played with love and passion. In fact, director Jonathon Demme doesn’t shy away from communicating joy throughout Ricki and the Flash. Like his 2008 movie Rachel Getting Married, this is the story of a black sheep coming home and of the disruption that her arrival brings – not only to the family as a whole but to her own equilibrium. But as in Rachel Getting Married there is also warmth and forgiveness to be found, and family ties are made of sturdier stuff than it first appears.