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Actress Meryl Streep is one of the best of her generation. She is a sorceress when it comes to inhabiting a character (The Iron Lady) and a wizard of mastering accents (Julie & Julia). Even when the movies around her are less than stellar (Mamma Mia!), Streep commits fully to the role. From the countless women she has tackled, she has never taken on the part of a rock star. In director Jonathan Demme’s latest, Ricki and the Flash, Streep plays a rocker with her trademark conviction and sells the hell out of it, even if the movie around her offers varied results.
The story centers on Ricki, a middle-aged rock star who left her family in order to pursue her dreams of music super stardom. Those dreams never quite came to fruition as she now fronts The Flash, a local L.A. band that holds a residency at a nearby bar. Out of the blue, Ricki receives a call from her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) about their daughter’s (Mamie Gummer) heartbreak over her husband’s affair and the dissolve of her marriage. Ricki ends up flying out to Indianapolis to comfort her daughter, who appears to be in a dark and troubled place. The reunion raises old wounds of estrangement between Ricki and the family she left behind. She finds comfort in the arms of her band mate (real-life musician Rick Springfield). Ricki must learn to navigate the mess of her past in order to find peace with her current life.
Director Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married) does his best to harness the flawed script by Diablo Cody (Juno) into a fluid movie-going experience, but falters in balancing the tone between comedy and drama. The transitions can be jarring at times and creates an uneven pace throughout the movie. Where Demme shines is in his off-the-cuff moments where he lets his actors breathe in their genuine emotions. He does stellar work in showcasing the music and how Ricki’s love for it fuels her soul. The scenes with Ricki playing with the band give the movie a much-needed charge of energy.
Cody’s script does offer some witty and pointed dialogue and she creates characters that have more edge and quirks that one might expect. Where she staggers is in the development of the relationships and the history behind the fractured family dynamic. I was not as invested as I could have been had the script taken a firmer and more focused grasp of the story. That being said, there are moments where the movie feels plugged into the complicated emotions of Ricki’s life choices. The movie is admirable for portraying a female rocker and the double standard that exists for women who take up this occupation. This helps with tempering some of the movie’s predictable nature of its story.
The actors do the heavy lifting and help carry the movie through some its rough patches. First and foremost, Streep dominates the movie with the authenticity she invests in the character. There is a lived-in feel to Ricki that Streep conveys effectively, a woman who fought plenty of battles to pursue her music career. She has the stage presence of a rock star down to a T, wielding a guitar with the best of them. Streep has a raspy quality to her singing voice, which lends an emotional rawness to her music performances. She portrays the complex emotions of Ricki’s life decisions with the touching gravity that Streep always lends to a role.
The supporting performances that surround Streep also bring their A-game. Kline is wonderful as the buttoned-up ex of Ricki, who still feels compassion and possibly residual love for Ricki. Kline’s sly comedic timing is always spot-on and funny to watch. Streep and Kline have wonderful and natural chemistry in their scenes together. Gummer (Streep’s real-life daughter) brings a blunt and hilarious force to her work as Ricki’s estranged daughter. Audra McDonald excels as Kline’s new wife and brings a compassion and understanding to the role. Sebastian Stan and Ben Platt are solid as Ricki’s sons, but their parts are underwritten and do not register as strongly. The real surprise is Rick Springfield as Ricki’s band mate and lover. He brings a vulnerability to his performance that is poignant and shares dynamite chemistry with Streep.
This is a movie that offers a mixed bag of pleasures and discontent. Demme and Cody have made stronger films in the past and with a more streamlined and developed story, this movie may have made a stronger impact emotionally. It has its moments where everything clicks, which is in large part to the substantial work by Streep and the supporting cast. I would give the movie a slight recommendation for the contributions of the actors and for seeing Streep shine as a rock star. She proves that she can truly play just about anything and is the movie’s life force. If only Ricki and the Flash had utilized more of that energy.