Ricki Rendazzo is forever stuck in a bar band/supermarket cashier world after abandoning her family to follow her rock & roll dream. The only place she’s at home is on stage – and the tragedy of the film is that she seems to be doomed to never rise above bar band notoriety.
When her ex-husband Pete calls her to come back – their daughter, Julie’s new husband has left her and she’s suicidal – Ricki finds herself feeling maternal and not really knowing what to do about it.
Ricki and The Flash opens with the band performing Tom Petty’s American Girl. It could be a big gig in a classy auditorium or an arena, from the way we see them kicking a little rock & roll ass, but then camera pulls back to reveal them on a tiny stage in front of a nearly empty San Fernando Valley dive bar called The Salt Well.
The most enthusiastic member of their audience is the bartender, Ben Platt (Benji in Pitch Perfect 1&2). Ricki’s (Meryl Streep) band – lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield), bassist Buster (Rick Rosas), drummer Joe (Joe Vitale) and keyboardist Billy (Bernie Worrell) – are the kind of sloppy/tight that reminds of rock giants like the Sir Douglas Quintet and have that same feeling of loving what they do – despite their less than optimal venue (they’ve the house band for decades!).
Ricki, when not playing (Meryl’s rhythm guitar is pretty solid – the music was filmed live), works as a cashier in a supermarket, where her supervisor occasionally has to remind her to be chipper and happy and keep the customers smiling.
When her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) calls her about their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer) – whose new husband has left her for a younger woman (who slaps stick figure family decals on her car) – she heads back to Indianapolis. There, she learns that Julie actually tried to commit suicide – and Julie is not especially pleased to see her.
What follows is Ricki’s effort to be a mom – something she was never any good at. Even Julie’s non-suicidal siblings Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate) aren’t happy to see her – Adam to the point of outright hostility. And Pete’s second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald) is less than approving of her methods.
Then there’s the complication that Greg uses the L-word to Ricki – freaking her out completely.
Written by Diablo Cody (whom I’m pretty sure is the woman in the red and black striped dress dancing alone in front of the band at one point – despite only seeing her from behind), Ricki and The Flash isn’t going to win any awards for originality. What it does have is an emotional authenticity and, thanks to Jonathan Demme’s direction, a rock & roll attitude that infuses its tale with a special kind of life.
Demme is, of course, famous for directing one of the best rock & roll films of all time (Stop Making Sense) and dramas like Rachel getting Married and The Silence of the Lambs. It’s because of his expertise at framing the musical performances and folding them naturally into the narrative that Ricki and The Flash works.
Well, that and great performances from Streep, Gummer and Springfield (people forget that the guy can act!). It’s no surprise that Streep can sing – she’s done at least three other movies where she’s shown a set of pipes with remarkable range and a gift for interesting phrasing. What’s unexpected is not so much that she can rock – and rock out she does – but that she can scream with the best of ‘em. Her performance of Woolly Bully is killer.
I’ve remarked in the past that Streep doesn’t always work for me because, in her serious dramas, I see her acting. Conversely, I’ve also remarked that I find her work in more comedic fare refreshingly natural and effective. In Rick and The Flash, she has some pretty dramatic moments and a good many comedic ones interspersed around the musical performances and she’s as close to perfect in the role as I’ve ever seen her.
What’s really cool about the movie is that her daughter, playing her daughter, is as intense and funny as Julie as Streep is as Ricki. Even if nothing else about the movie worked, it would be something just for that.
Despite its flaws (it’s way too pat at times), there’s more to Ricki and The Flash than Streep and Gummer. Springfield’s Greg loves to rock, but he loves Ricki even more – and he does something that only a musician could do to show that (and Springfield totally sells it!).
McDonald is fierce as the mother who actually did the mothering after Ricki (née Linda) followed her dream, and the late Rick Rosas (who died shortly after filming wrapped) is an unexpected delight as the quiet, unobtrusive Buster, who says little but makes every word count.
Stan and Westrate don’t have much to do, either, but instead of going through the motions, they give real heart to their characters – and Hailey Gates deserves mention for playing Josh’s fiancée, Emily, who meets Ricki at pretty much the worst possible time.
There are some cringeworthy moments in Ricki and The Flash, but I suspect most of them were deliberate – and they contrast nicely with the well-earned moments when things really come together.
Ricki may never rise above bar band notoriety, but Ricki and The Flash certainly does.
Final Grade: B+
Photos courtesy of TriStar Pictures