Ricki and the Flash

August 29, 2015
Meryl Streep in "Ricki and the Flash' (2015)
Meryl Streep in "Ricki and the Flash' (2015)

It often seems Woody Allen can’t make up his mind whether he wants to make a feel-good film or a feel-bad one. No such indecision characterises Jonathan Demme who, in Ricki and the Flash, has created a movie to make middle-aged audiences believe all hope is not yet lost.

It is a film that owes everything to a daredevil performance by Meryl Streep, as a 60-ish rocker who keeps the dream alive every night, playing covers in a San Fernando Valley bar with her equally venerable band. There was a time when Ricki Rendazzo dreamt of rock stardom, but now she doesn’t even cover costs, having to work in a supermarket to pay the rent. She is involved in a lukewarm affair with her lead guitarist, Greg (former Aussie, Rick Springfield), but has been alone too long to give herself to any grand passion.

Ricki once had another life, which comes rushing back via a phone call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline). Their daughter, Julie (played by Streep’s actual daughter, Mamie Gummer), has been dumped by her husband, and is entrenched in the family home in Indianapolis in a state of despair. The situation calls for a mother’s love, even though Ricki – who formerly answered to the name, Linda Brummell – was never much of a mother.

She will soon get confirmation that her children have yet to forgive her for running off to Los Angeles to pursue the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, leaving them in the care of their workaholic father. Her replacement was Pete’s second wife, the formidable Maureen (Audra McDonald), a homemaker from out of the textbook.

Julie is now an angry, bitter mess. The older son, Adam, is gay, while the younger, Josh, is engaged to a snooty girl from a well-heeled Indianapolis family. Pete and Maureen’s household is a mansion in a gated community – a bastion of middle-class affluence into which Ricki descends like a bomb, with a too-young hair-do, leather, tats and guitar. In this milieu she is the ultimate embarrassing parent and house guest. Weirdly, she is also a Republican die-hard, more right-wing than her uptight hosts.

This catastrophic clash of values provides the comedy, with Ricki being torn between the impulse to flee, and the desire to disrupt this bastion of middle-class liberalism. Kline’s Pete is far from one-dimensional. He retains his affection for Ricki after all these years, and is even prepared to get stoned with her and Julie, who is gradually rejoining the human race.

Meanwhile Greg keeps pushing Ricki to give up her stubborn ways and move in with him. It is only after returning from Indianapolis and getting back on stage that she begins to take his proposals more seriously.

The last scenario sees Ricki and Greg as the odd ones out at Josh’s wedding. Surrounded by disapproving faces they have to take matters in hand and steer the party in a new direction. I can’t give too much away, but in this grand finale, Demme and writer, Diablo Cody, let go the delicate balance between drama and comedy, and pump up the feel-good factor. It’s supposed to be a triumphant ending but it is also a disappointingly banal way to resolve all the tensions and anxieties between characters that had been built up in the course of the story.

Ricki and the Flash, is at best, a superior soap opera, exploring the tensions that arise when family values clash with personal dreams. Yet this is only one element of a film that spends much of its time wallowing in rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia, with Ricki and her band belting out songs by Tom Petty, U2, Bruce Springsteen, one-hit wonder, Dobie Gray; and (for the youngsters) Lady Gaga and Pink. The demographic – or should that be the Demmegraphic? – is an audience in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

It’s amazing to watch Meryl Streep as a veteran rocker, and even more amazing to find out she learnt to play guitar for this role. Yet Ricki and the Flash is like one of those radio stations that keeps playing “Hits of the 80s”, or worse. If you believe in the redemptive power of rock ‘n’ roll, are old enough to remember Dobie Gray, and wish to be reminded of your age, this is the movie of your dreams.

Ricki and the Flash
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate
USA, rated PG, 87 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29th August, 2015.