“Ricki and the Flash” Pits Meryl Streep Against Her Daughter
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
“Is there any role Meryl Streep can’t play?” asked one of my friends as we watched her morph into an aging rock singer in “Ricki and the Flash.”
The answer is apparently, no.
Generally acknowledged to be the best female actor since Katherine Hepburn (and maybe even better than Kate), she has earned 19 Academy Award nominations in the past three and a half decades, more than any other performer. Of those, she won three -- Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), Best Actress for “Sophie's Choice” (1982), and Best Actress for “The Iron Lady” (2011). And she’s the most-nominated performer in Golden Globe history.
Streep started out in theater, but Robert De Niro’s performance in “Taxi Driver” made her declare, “That's the kind of actor I want to be when I grow up.” Her first movie role came in “Julia” (1977) where she appeared in a flashback sequence. As synchronicity would have it, it was De Niro who recommended her for a part in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), the role of a "vague, stock girlfriend" which snagged her an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress.
At that time Streep was so unknown that when we put her on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1980 (I was a VP with the magazine) it was our worst seller of the year. But by the following year she gave us the Best Selling cover after picking up an Academy Award for “Kramer Vs. Kramer.” She was on her way to greatness.
Her range? We’ve seen her play everything from a French Lieutenant’s woman to a Polish immigrant forced to decide which of her children would live, from a Danish woman who enters into a loveless marriage and moves to East Africa to a New York City food writer married to a philandering man, from a romantic Italian war bride who has a 4-day affair with a photographer in Madison County to a devilish high priestess of fashion, from Julia Child to Margret Thatcher, from the life-embracing mama of a Greek bride to a cancer-stricken matriarch in Osage County. Even a wicked witch with green skin.
And now a never-quite-made-it rocker.
In “Ricki and the Flash” -- now showing at Tropic Cinema -- Meryl Streep portrays “a non-traditional mother” who abandoned her husband and three children to pursue her dream of being a rock star.
After a failed album and little success, Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) has been reduced to nightly gigs at the Salt Well in Tarzana, California, while not quite making ends meet as a cashier at Total Foods during the day. That is, until she gets a call from ex-hubby Pete (Kevin Kline) saying she’s needed back in Indianapolis because her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is going through a bad divorce.
Turns out, it’s worse than she expected. Julie has tried to off herself with sleeping pills, one son (Sebastian Stan) is getting married without inviting her to the wedding, and the other son (Nick Westgate) has announced he’s gay. What’s more, Pete’s second wife (Audra McDonald) thinks the former Linda Brummel is not needed there after all these years as an absentee mother.
When we first meet Ricki, bringing down the house singing “American Girl” with her cover band The Flash, she’s mindful of an aging Bonnie Raitt or a wannabe Stevie Nicks. Clad in leather, braided blond hair, having a fling with her guitarist Greg (real deal Rick Springfield), she’s a sad sight, but easy enough to accept. However, when she hits Indy, we realize she’s a fish out of water, an outsider in the family that gathers there in the fancy McMansion, having moved on without her.
Yes, it’s a testament to Meryl Streep’s talent that she can give us an unsympathetic character, a mother who put her own dreams ahead of her family, and yet make us root for her.
In this trifling bittersweet comedy written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”) and directed by Jonathan Deme (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Stop Making Sense”), we know it’s going to be a happy-as-it-can-be ending, finalizing with a joyous musical performance that does for music by Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen what “Mama Mia!” did for ABBA’s bouncy tunes. All played, according to the credits, by Ricki and the Flash.
Note: The filming was delayed so Streep could learn to play the rhythm guitar (coached by Neil Young), knowing that she’d be doing her own singing and playing with the band: Rick Springfield (remember “Jessie’s Girl”?), Funkadelic keyboarder Bernie Worrell, bassist Rick Rosas, and Eagles drummer Joe Vitale. As a result, Streep’s rendition of “Cold One” will likely be up for a Best Song Oscar.
Aside from the music, the main reason to see this movie is to watch Streep playing opposite her real-life daughter Mamie Gummer. Obviously, the young actress inherited her mother’s genes -- both for acting talent and sisterly looks. Hair askew, no makeup, she’s designed to look as plain as her heavily mascaraed mama looks glamorous ... but she easily holds her own.
And she makes us understand the film’s message: “It’s not the kids’ job to love you, it’s your job to love them.”