Is there anything that Meryl Streep cannot do? At an age when most actresses find it hard to land meaty roles or substantial character parts, Streep is a chameleon who seems to still be going strong, playing a variety of diverse and challenging roles.
A case in point is her new film in which she plays Ricki, a leather clad rocker with a covers band in California. Years earlier she walked out on her middle class conservative Jewish family in Indianapolis to follow her dream of becoming a rock star and finding fame and fortune. Unfortunately the dream has faded. While Ricki plays with the band in dingy bars at night she barely ekes out living working at a checkout counter in a local supermarket. And her relationship with her lead guitarist Greg (played by Aussie rocker Rick Springfield) is also complicated as he clearly wants more from the onstage flirting and banter.
Then she gets a phone call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) who tells her that their daughter Julie (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) is depressed and suicidal after her husband left her. Reluctantly Ricki packs her guitar and heads home to Indianapolis, only to find herself facing a mountain of bitterness, resentment and recriminations. Initially we are not sure that Ricki has the emotional strength and character to heal the rift in her family. Slowly though Ricki begins to reconnect with Julie and draw her out of her funk. Her relationship with her two sons is also troubled. Josh is engaged and about to be married, while Adam has come out as gay. “Children are not required to love their parents, but you have to love them. That’s what parents do,” Greg tells her at one point when she lets her frustration get the better of her.
There are some bleak and emotionally wrenching moments throughout, but ultimately the film moves towards a feel good ending and a rousing finale that holds out some sense of optimism. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno) Ricki and the Flash is a bittersweet tale of past mistakes, regrets, second chances, redemption, and the power of music to heal wounds. We’ve seen this sort of disconnect and uneasy dynamics of dysfunctional families before, so there is a feeling of familiarity about some of the material.
What sets it apart from the pack though is the fabulous music. Not a slickly packaged compilation of commercial hits though, the music here sees Streep herself power her way through a number of 70s and 80s pop standards, from Tom Petty to Drift Away to U2 and even a gritty Bruce Springsteen ballad. Initially the thought of Streep covering a Springsteen song may have been sacrilegious, but surprisingly she absolutely nails it! Streep has sung on screen before most notably in Mamma Mia! and the recent Into the Woods, but here she is actually very good.
Gummer eschews make-up for much of the time and brings some biting touches to her performance as the embittered Julie. Kline is very good at playing the straight laced conservative type, and his performance here is laced with touches of self effacing humour. And Springfield, best known for his #1 hit Jessie’s Girl, is no longer the handsome heartthrob of thirty years ago when he appeared in TV’s General Hospital, but he brings a grizzled and gnarled, lived-in quality to his performance here, and he vaguely resembles a younger Kris Kristofferson circa 1975’s A Star is Born.
The director is Jonathan Demme (the dark psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs), making a return to dramatic fiction after a decade directing documentaries and music videos. He brings a wonderful fusion of bittersweet drama and humour to the material, but he seems most comfortable with the energetic rock numbers which elevate the material.
Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Meryl Streep, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer and Audra McDonald
Release Date: 27 August 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television