Review: Meryl Streep shows an unexpected rock and roll soul in ‘Ricki and the Flash’

The Ricki of “Ricki and the Flash” is a rocker, a Hollywood lifer who has given up everything to pursue her dreams of stardom.  There are probably thousands of Rickis still hoping for that big break in Los Angeles.  The one city where a dream doesn't die once you hit retirement age.

(Oh, and lest we forget, Ricki happens to be played by none other than Meryl Streep. That”s somewhat important, isn't it?)

Well into her ’60s, she spends her days as a tempestuous checkout clerk for a Whole Foods knock off.  At night she slides on a leather jacket to front a group of old school rock and rollers who make up the house band for a divvy San Fernando Valley bar.  But the joy she finds from belting out covers of classic tunes isn”t just about her love of music.  It helps her forget the other life she left behind, decades ago. After reluctantly answering a phone call from her desperate ex-husband (Kevin Kline) this mirage of happiness she”s built for herself slowly begins to crack.

Julie, Ricki”s thirtysomething daughter (played by Streep”s own daughter Mamie Gummer), is having a breakdown. Her husband has left her for another woman and she”s holed up in her father”s Indianapolis home trying to recover.  An almost penniless Ricki shows up on her ex”s doorstep to help.  Her style and demeanor are almost alien to everyone around her, but she tries to fit into this opulent Middle America world her offspring have thrived in.  Yes, Ricki has two other grown up sons, Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), and its not entirely clear either is happy to see her.  

The audience never finds out the entire back story, but Ricki's family resents her for abandoning them to pursuit a failed music career.  Her kids were raised mostly by her ex”s new wife (a wonderful Audra Macdonald) and as the years passed she slowly faded from their lives as she returned home for the holidays less and less frequently.  The film asks whether our Ricki can find a balance between both worlds, can her children forgive her or has too much damage been done?

From a purely cinematic standpoint “Ricki and The Flash” is a unique collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody, director Jonathan Demme and Streep.  One of Cody”s strength”s as a writer is that no matter what the subject matter you quickly recognize her voice in the material.  Cody has created something uniquely contradictory in Ricki (a wannabee rock star with overtly conservative views living in liberal LA) and Demme”s minimizes these harsh edges by letting the material play out as realistically as possible.   As for their leading lady, this sort of part may not seem like it”s worthy of a signature “Meryl Streep” performance, but someone forgot to tell that to Streep.  

The legendary actress just doesn”t know how to sleepwalk through a role like this.  She subtly gives the rocker a cloak of pain and insecurity that transforms Ricki into one of the more three-dimensional characters Streep has played in recent years.  You”ll believe you”ve met Ricki or someone like her at some point in your life.  There is no hint of caricature here as in “The Iron Lady.”  Streep isn”t trying to break through the theatrics of “Into the Woods” by playing to the balcony.  Those were fine performances, but there is something grounded in her portrayal of Ricki that we haven”t seen from the three-time Oscar winner in a long time.   And if you”re wondering whether you”ll believe Streep is a convincing rock musician, please.  It”s Meryl Streep here. She sounds like she”s ready to open for Bruce Springsteen.

One of Demme”s great talents is the ability to catch a fleeting moment from an actor that informs their character or a scene more than just a conventional staging (he often does it in his numerous close ups).  It”s Demme”s deft eye that puts Streep”s work here center stage. Often these are quiet reactions from Ricki as she tries to deal with Julie”s negativity or her resentful sons, but Streep”s silence works wonders.

Of course, that”s not to say the movie doesn”t have some problems.  Cody”s script awkwardly returns Ricki to Los Angeles and then finds a predictable way to get her back to Indiana for the big finale.  There are also some key moments that don”t have the emotional impact they should such as a chance run in with Julie”s estranged husband (an opportunity missed to inform more of Julie”s character) and a little more backstory of how/when/why Ricki never really came back would have been effective.

One of the strongest aspects of the picture is its ensemble cast. Gummer is the film”s secret weapon transforming Julie into someone her mom can truly relate with and, arguably, a character more interesting than Ricki.  Kline walks the fine line of a man who still pines for his true love while realizing what”s gone is truly gone.  Rick Springfield is impressive as Ricki”s bandmate and boyfriend Greg and Westrate is very good as Ricki”s gay son who just can't forgive his mother for leaving him.

Music is a huge part of the film and it would not succeed with its big screen house band.  “The Flash” is made up of Ricki (Streep proving she's more than just a master of musicals) on lead vocals and guitar, Greg (Sprinfield) on guitar and backup vocals, drummer Joe Vitale, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Rick Rosas who died shortly after production wrapped.  They are collectively so entertaining you keep waiting for someone to show up and book them in a hipper venue.

“Ricki and the Flash” opens nationwide Friday.