With a name that makes it sound like the weekend box office will be a battle between off-brand Marvel and DC properties, Ricki and the Flash does, in fact, feature a superhero who runs away as fast as they can. Okay, “superhero” is the sentimental way of referring to a mother, but Ricki and the Flash isn’t shy about its emotions. It’s also not afraid to be indulgent in the way that a lot of actual comic book movies are. But even lovers of great actors, directors, and rock ‘n’ roll music deserve crowd-pleasers now and then, and that’s a title Ricki and the Flash is more than happy to live up to.
Meryl Streep, Queen of Oscar nominations, stars as Ricki Rendazzo, an aging rocker who exists in a bizzaro world where someone like Streep isn’t an unstoppable success in their chosen profession. Ricki (born the totally not rock’n’roll Linda) had a few years off the road in the ‘80s, but the call of the stage ultimately proved more appealing to her than the draw of homemaking in the ‘burbs.
The Flash is Ricki’s four-piece backup group, the lot of them we meet in the movie’s opening musical number. The house band has made a home for themselves in Tarzana, California, in the kind of dive bar where everyone is either a senior citizen, or a high school senior. When not covering The Stones and Tom Petty for her generation of fans, Ricki belts out modern pop tunes that the kids seem to like. Performing each night to a tiny crowd of regulars, cocktails and scattered applause their only reward, Ricki and the Flash’s rock ‘n’ roll dream seems as dead as, well, rock ‘n’ roll.
Indeed, between her cashier day job, motel apartment, and clingy guitarist boyfriend (Rick Springfield, well-cast), Ricki’s determination to keep chasing stardom seems delusional. As played by Streep and written by Diablo Cody, Ricki’s airhead personality and half-braid hairdo give you plenty to laugh at when she’s off stage. But when Ricki and the gang are strumming the hits, and shot by director Jonathan Demme, you get why the roar of the crowd, however big, is an addiction that’d be hard to kick. The real tragedy of Ricki’s life is waiting for her back in Indianapolis: after the daughter she left behind is abandoned by her husband, Ricki jets out to the Midwest for a reunion that hits every major stop on the film’s tour through redemptive family dramedy convention.
And for the first half, that’s no problem. Ricki and the Flash is often delightful as a peppy riff on “coming home” territory explored in Cody’s bitter Young Adult, or Demme’s heart-heavy Rachel Getting Married. Streep is a hoot as the bedraggled lead, but the supporting cast members are ideal backup players for Ricki and the Flash’s domestic culture clash. Mamie Gummer (Streep’s actual daughter) is scabrously funny as the recent divorcette. Makeup free and pajama-clad for most of the picture, she can turn the act of staring at a sleeping parent into a minute of still life comedy.
Ricki and the Flash’s best use of sound isn’t during the big musical numbers, but in small throwaway gags. Riki crashing a bourgeoisie community gives Cody plenty of ammo for dry zingers, but an out-of-frame sneeze, or the protracted stamping of feet up stairs prove just as humorous. Kevin Kline plays Ricki’s remarried ex-husband, and is all the funnier for biting his tongue as the put upon patriarch, not setting the pace of the repartee as he often does elsewhere. A dinner reuniting the whole family (including Sebastian Stan as Ricki’s soon-to-be-wed son) at a hoighty-toighty restaurant may be contrived in its conception, but Demme, Cody, and the cast make the bit sing.
And then it’s only shortly after this that Audra McDonald, as the woman who raised Ricki’s kids since they were young, goes head-to-head with Streep in the movie’s single best scene, a bloodletting session between two types of mothers that sympathizes with both. Shame, then, that what should begin a deep cut into Ricki reckoning with her past decisions marks a left turn into the tune-heavy B-side. Through its entire second half, Ricki and the Flash cares more about staging an uplifting show than the characters putting it on.
Tellingly, the movie’s original song, “Cold One,” is the sort of track only an awards body could love: it’s catchy, emotionally loaded, and completely devoid of any real personality. Demme’s working with a fine soundtrack otherwise, and Streep’s great when jamming away, but when Ricki and the Flash becomes a Stop Making Sense-style concert film is when it stops having lyrics or performers as important as the music. Like most supergroups, Ricki and the Flash fails to combine the strengths of its collaborators into anything revolutionary. Then again, half the fun of watching old hands go to work is knowing exactly when to clap along to the beat.
Ricki and the Flash is an energetic, likeable, and safe greatest hits collection for many of its talented voices.