Ricki and the Flash: Meryl Streep is Good as Aging Singer and Neglectdul Wife-Mother but the Movie is Pat and Cliche-Ridden

ricki_and_the_flash_posterMeryl Streep, easily the most accomplished and skillful actress working in Hollywood now, usually elevates every film project she is involved with.  But, alas, Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash is such a minor and familiar feature that it’s really not worthy of Streep’s or of her director’s stature and talent.

Deep down, beneath the facade of rock ‘n roll, the movie is yet another serio-comedy about a uniquely American dysfunction family.

I have no doubts that Ricki and the Flash, which world premieres as opening night of the Locarno Film Fest, at the Piaza Grande, will be appreciated by the 5,000 people who sit at this glorious square (I had served on the grand jury of Locarno in 2001 and love that place with its outdoor family-friendly screenings).

Our grade: B- (** out of *****)

ricki_and_the_flash_7_streepHowever, stateside, commercial prospect are iffy for a mid-range feature that depends on Streep’s fan base, Bruce Springsteen’s iconic music, and on its two-generational plot which, among other things, sees Streep acting with (or opposite) her own daughter, Mamie Gummer.  (The two had appeared together before, most recently Tommy Lee Jones’ 2014 Western, “The Homesman,” but not as mother-daughter).

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 Consider Ricki and the Flash an acting exercise of stretching, an opportunity for Streep to play an aging rock star and deliver quite impressively some songs as a guitarist and rock-band front-woman.  It’s when the music stops that the film gets in trouble and reveal its major weaknesses in the writing department.

ricki_and_the_flash_6_streepA music lover and connoisseur, Demme has demonstrated before his penchant for rhythm, set in both dramatic and comedic situation, in such landmark documentaries as Stop Making and in his fictional works as well (Remember the choice of songs in Citizen Band or Something Wild (still my all-time favorite Demme pictures).

The overly familiar story concerns a rebellious femme in her 60s (Streep’s real age) who, after neglecting her family for decades, seeks rapprochement, redemption, and peace with her inner self. You would expect more original and witty dialogue from a  scribe like Diablo Cody, but what she offers here is a conventional, flat, and in moments downright sappy tale.  The whole film runs a fine line (or rather imbalance) between its light comedic and more serious dramatic element, bittersweet versus cynical tones, parodic and earnest themes.

ricki_and_the_flash_5_streep_gummerThe all too easy way that Diablo takes with her contrived narrative is manifest from the beginning of the cliché plot, when an attempted suicide forces Streep’s Ricki (actually Linda) Rendazzo to leave L.A. and go back to Indianapolis.  Once upon a time an unhappy working class wife and mother, Ricki is called back by her former hubby, Pete (Kevin Kline), to help him deal with the depression of their daughter, Julie (Mammie Gummer), after the tragic breakup of the latter’s marriage.

Ricki and the Flash are the name of the band at a San Fernando Valley bar, which, with its older crowd, has seen better days. We meet her lead guitarist, Greg (Bruce Springfield), who is smitten with her while going through hard times himself.

While Diablo has constructed three more or less strong individuals, she has neglected the secondary and supporting characters.  This is especially the case of Ricki’s two sons, who are still bitter about the mother who first neglected and then altogether left them to selfishly pursue her career.

ricki_and_the_flash_4_streepThough they are types, due to his more nuanced acting, Sebastian Stan (the Winter Soldier in Captain America) comes across better as the son who is more willing to forget if not to forgive; he and his fiancée (Hailey Gates) don’t want Ricki at their wedding.   He is contrasted with his brother Adam (Nick Westrate), who is angry and hostile throughout.

There are other contrivances: Pete’s second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), who has raised Ricki’s children, is suspiciously missing during the crisis, but she turns out to be tougher than expected.  We keep waiting for the two vastly different femmes to meet and clash, and sure enough they do, in a rather disappointing scene.

There is good chemistry between  Streep and Springsteen, both as on-stage performers and off stage, when they interact in various situations, some more humorous, while others forced and boring in their melodramatic earnestness.

ricki_and_the_flash_3_streep_gummerThere’s also good rapport between Streep and her real-life daughter Gummer, who meets the challenge of playing convincingly a troubled , temperamental wife and long-suffering and still needy daughter.

In its good moments, Ricki and the Flash works well, due to Streep’s multi-nuanced acting as a character study of a conflicted woman, defined by more contradictions that she is willing to admit.  For example, Ricki proudly wears a leather jacket and cool hairdos, but she sports an old-fashioned tattoo of the American flag and votes for the Republican rather than Democratic Party, as would be expected of a woman of her ink.  Streep offers sharp insights into hers portraiture of a regretful and remorseful but still strong and rough-edged woman, who refuses to apologize for past (misbehavior) or to acknowledge failure and defeat.

ricki_and_the_flash_2Though she doesn’t have a big voice, Streep has sung well before–I saw her way before she became a film star singing on stage in Off Broadway production of Berthold Brecht’s “The Happy End.” You may recall her pleasant vocalism in Altman’s 2006 (and last film) A Prairie Home Companion, in the blockbuster Abba musical Mamma Mia!, and last year in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, for which she received yet another  Supporting Actress Oscar nod.  And while she has paired with Lily Tomlin in the Altman film, she has not had to contend with pros like Springsteen and company, vet sidemen Bernie Worrell and Joe Vitale, bassist Rick Rosas, a frequent Neil Young collaborator.

ricki_and_the_flash_1_streep_gummerAs usual in Demme’s films, Technical contributions are also strong in every department: Ace cinematography by Declan Quinn, Stuart Wurtzel’s production design, and especially Ann Roth’s varied costumes



Demme has not made a mainstream studio film since his (unnecessary) 2004 remake, The Manchurian Candidate (which also starred Meryl Streep as the monstrous mother). And there are too many thematic similarities to his 2008 dysfunctional family serio-comedy, Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway as a woman (who could be the younger, irresponsible sister of Streep’s character in the new on).  At this point in Hollywood history, to end a picture with a wedding is not only pat but downright embarrassing, especially for Demme, a director know for his fresh, original and and quirky strategies.