Ricki and the Flash
Director(s): Jonathan Demme
Writer(s): Diablo Cody
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield, Charlotte Rae, Nick Westrate, Hailey Gates, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale and Bernie Worrell
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Aug 7, 2015 - Wide
Meryl Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, lead singer of the bar band Ricki and the Flash. After leaving her family behind years ago to pursue her rock and roll dreams, Ricki gets a phone call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) after her daughter Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) has a breakdown following the end of her marriage. Heading back to Indiana, Ricki — whose real name is Linda Brummell — faces a despondent daughter, one distant son (Sebastian Stan) who’s about to get married, and an angry son (Nick Westrate) who loathes his Obama-hating, Tea Party-tattooed mother’s reluctance to accept his homosexuality.
It seems like director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody have prepared a recipe for some real family conflict and perhaps even a heartfelt story about dreams pursued and redemption sought. The recipe might be there, but they never cooked the meal. Ricki and the Flash seems to be the result of a bet that a legendary actress like Streep, who has given us so many powerful roles, could appear in a film so forgettable and tame that it’s not even worth having on in the background on a rainy weekend afternoon.
When Ricki gets the call, she’s not a rock’n‘roll god. She works in a grocery store by day and at night plays in a beaten-up tavern in Tarzana, California alongside her somewhat boyfriend Greg (former music heartthrob Rick Springfield) and the rest of the Flash, portrayed by musical greats Bernie Worrell, a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic, the late Rick Rosas, who played with Neil Young and many others, and longtime Joe Walsh collaborator Joe Vitale. She heads back to Indiana where her ex Pete, the human embodiment of a sweater vest, lives in a gated community with his saintly, perfect wife Maureen, played by Audra McDonald. Julie is angry when she sees her mother and the welcome wagon isn’t extended when she has dinner with her sons either.
Again, we should be heading into some juicy family history and exploring some dynamics, but the anger barely scratches the surface. When Ricki finds out that Julie tried to commit suicide, surely we’re in for some soul-searching and “the world is tough” talk from Ricki. Nope. She takes Julie for donuts, a spa day, and some new clothes. Rock and roll? What’s more suburban than what Ricki did? When she sees Maureen, who has been taking care of an ailing father, she gets given the stock “I was there for them when you ran away” speech but nothing comes of it. And all the family issues get swept under the rug with a song and a dance. Literally.
Streep’s always doing some great preparation for her roles and she learned to play electric guitar for this one. She does her own singing and it’s fine for the songs she tackles, though it’s bizarre seeing a bar band tackling Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Combined with Springfield and the band, there’s a lot of talent there and Demme spends a lot of time showcasing their musical performances. It’s just that he and Cody forgot to give her great scenes to act in as well. Mamie Gummer, working opposite her mother, shows us a shattered and broken Julie, but again, Cody’s script fixes her so quickly we don’t get a chance to see much more of that. Kevin Kline, who usually adds so much life and spirit to his roles, is so barely present as Pete, that I think in one scene he actually excused himself to deposit his acting salary. Audra McDonald, who can fill a theatre with her voice and performance, is basically just asked to deliver one firm yet scathing review of Ricki’s parenting. Meryl and Audra could have had many wonderful scenes of duelling parenting, but alas, we get the hint of just one. In fact, it’s up to Rick Springfield to deliver the film’s strongest comment on the responsibilities of parenting and he’s mostly just in the bar scenes.
There are quite a few times in Cody’s script where there are hints of moments in the past or issues in the present that are briefly looked at and then dropped without further exploration, like Cody was channelling an energetic puppy during the writing process. Considering the powerhouse talent available in the film, it doesn’t even register a glimmer. Ricki and the Flash isn’t worth the cover charge.