Ricki and The Flash (2015) Directed by Jonathan Demme
Cool, stylish and artistic 1970s New Hollywood films never explained themselves. They left characters hanging, zoomed out of a story before we knew where it would end and outlined something that was never fully colored in. The outcome felt gritty, like real life happening. Usually the films described men. Think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces for example. Women had the bit-parts – they were either momsy or slutty. Of course there have been movies like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Coal Miner's Daughter – films about women and mothers, who were also musicians and songwriters – but these characters and stories have remained in the fringes. Ricki and The Flash is a movie in the vein of 1970s movie making and it takes a look at that gendered family versus artistic career conundrum. I welcome this subject with open arms.
Meryl Streep plays Ricki, an aging musician who works in a bar in LA playing cover songs every night to a handful of admirers. She is in no way a rock star, or even a very creative performer or a songwriter. Later we find out that she has published one album (of her own songs) in her whole career. Her aspirations have yielded little in the sense of back catalogue, creative projects, money or fame. Yet, she is obviously determined to go against the grain and remain true to her calling. Just because. In the movie Ricki is broke, lonely, working at a super market counter and has no connection to her children. The film does not offer a backstory or go into detail as to why she divorced, or why she didn't remain in her children's life, but little by little we see her unravel as she interacts with her family after a long time of not being in touch.
Ricki and The Flash is very funny, yet during many scenes in the film I was close to tears. Streep's character is so perfectly conveying both a vulnerability, happiness at her own choices and the conflicting sadness of having not been able to remain a part of her children's lives. She also gives some great speeches during the course of the movie to reflect on her position as a mother and an artist. Her rants onstage resonate with my own feelings and experiences, even though I am managing to stay both a mother, a wife and a creative artist right now. Somewhere there might be a weakness in the script. Ricki's motivations are never clarified, but then again, do you know why Nicholson's character in Five Easy Pieces was such a cold bitch running away from everyone and everything? Not really. These imperfections in the script are like the real-life fissures in the narratives of our lives. It doesn't all make sense but it feels right.
This film could easily have been called Meryl & The Horse. It's with consummate ease that Meryl Streep is able to slip into middle aged rocker mode – and why not with a set of tonsils like hers. Ricki and The Flash manages to erase any nightmares and dents to her credibility that Mamma Mia may have bought your/her way. Postcards From The Edge proved to us that Meryl has the chops to carry off any song you may want her to sing. An alternative career fronting a mid-size rock band wouldn't have been out of the question for Meryl, a slightly rockier Bonnie Raitt if you like. The Flash really are seasoned veterans of many an outstanding live venture off screen: the late Rick Rosas (who the film is dedicated to) plays bass (known for playing with Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield and CSNY). Then we have drummer Joe Vitale (The Eagles), keys from Bernie Worrell (Parliament, Booker T) and of course that old rocker Rick Springfield of Jessie's Girl fame on lead guitar. Amongst such company, Meryl more than holds her own. Demme of course has history here: Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads) revolutionizing the live concert film plus many a documentary with Neil Young. Demme's also worked with New Order, Bruce Springsteen and The Pretenders to name a few. But let's be clear, Ricki and The Flash is unrecognizable work from the man that bought you edgy movies like The Silence Of The Lambs and Something Wild.
Ricki and The Flash makes some basic comments on class distinctions and how motherhood is something that transcends bad behaviour and neglect and still it survives. Demme handles everything very ably and in a relaxed fashion, letting the cast do their jobs very well. Streep is reunited with Kevin Kline after they both broke through with Sophie's Choice in 1982. Streep also gets to act opposite her real-life daughter, the fantastically named Mamie Gummer (who also plays her daughter in the film). And for Demme and Streep they re-engage after Streep took the Angela Lansbury role in Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate. So, in essence, this is a familiar crew and it just adds to the easygoing charm of the picture. Yes, there are some serious stereotypes on show about being in a band and some of what happens is highly improbable. This movie's got an extra soft centre that could grate, but that doesn't stop Ricki and The Flash from being rather good.
|Ricki & The Flash decide to give us their version of Pink's Let's Get The Party Started|