“Ricki and the Flash” (dir. Jonathan Demme) – Well-rounded musical drama

I’ve often said that there are things I will tolerate from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other. Sudden romances, heightened emotional beats, and character arcs that are earned in neither the performances nor the screenwriting, but reliably and effectively manipulate the audience into feeling something through the sheer, awesome, neurologically-evocative power of music. And yet, Ricki and the Flash, an original collaboration from director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody, may be the first musical I’ve seen that attaches this facile enhancement to a character drama whose beats are worthy of being musically heightened in the first place.

Ricki Randazzo, née Linda (Meryl Streep), is an aging rockstar who plays with a cover band co-led by her gentleman-friend Greg, who looks and shreds suspiciously like Rick Springfield. Like any good rockstar, she’s left behind her Midwestern roots – and her family – to pursue her dream, and while her glory days (in the form of a single album) are likely behind her, she still plays a bar gig in California with all the vim and vigor of Madison Square Garden. I find that I’m being a bit mean about this character not because I disliked Streep’s performance, but because she was so effective in the first half at making the character deeply unlikable. Late in the film, when she smiles and says, of attending a family event, “If I go there, something terrible will happen,” I laughed involuntarily. Then a crack appeared in Ricki’s half-smile. And Streep reveals the true pathos behind Linda’s face as she says of her family, “You don’t know these people. They despise me.”

This has probably been said quite enough, but Meryl Streep is an absolute treasure. And her ability to project instant familiarity and comfort with every detail of this character, from her decrepit apartment to her wobbly on-stage performance and rich, dusky singing voice, is unparalleled. Cody’s script gives Streep a good deal of complexity to work with, even if the character occasionally gets drunkenly didactic about the double-standards that male rockers face with regard to their family affairs. But for the majority of the film, Cody’s writing is quite strong – indeed, this may be her most mature script to date, with all of her quirk and sharp sarcasm perhaps tempered a bit by reality. This is seemingly the next sad chapter in the life of Charlize Theron‘s character from Young Adult.

When the family interaction finally happens, it’s propped up by a series of strong performances, from dapper, bourgie ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) to her decidedly non-gay divorcée daughter, Julie, played by Streep’s actual daughter Mamie Gummer. Gummer is an absolute wreck here, and I mean that in the best way. She is surely the most honest character in the film, both with herself and the rest of the cast – even if that honesty takes the form of complete disinterest in personal hygiene and a recent suicide attempt. Her looming divorce is the impetus behind bringing Linda back to her long-abandoned family in the first place, and indeed, much of the film’s strongest dramatic work comes between mother and daughter. Apart from that, Streep and Kline also share a delightful scene of family marijuana-time in which the lingering romantic nostalgia between the pair is teased, established, and appropriately not dwelt upon. Her two sons (played by Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) are basically non-entities, imbued with a single, simple conflict apiece that contribute little to the film except a setting for the final act. They don’t drag down the film, but they certainly make it feel a bit overstuffed, especially when it manages to make such strong use of Audra McDonald with equally little screentime. McDonald plays Maureen, Pete’s “new wife” of 20+ years who did far more to raise Linda’s kids than she ever did. The script teases her arrival throughout the first half, and while McDonald and Streep ultimately only have a handful of scenes together, the tension underlying this relationship is clear and immediate. Maureen is established as an admirable woman in a great many ways, and the inevitable confrontation between the two ill-matched rivals is not only some of Cody’s sharpest dialogue; it may be the film’s best scene. It mixes emotion and exposition and a pair of stunningly executed performances and leaves the audience reeling for the start of the third act.

This is probably a good spot to mention that Ricki and the Flash is incredibly predictable, which is why I’ve been a bit looser than usual with spoilers. This is one of those vices of the musical genre that I’ll handily forgive. There was only ever one way for this film to end, with the titular band on stage playing us into the credits. But it’s in this third act that the musical elements of the film really start to shine. Scenes last for two, three minutes longer than they would in any other genre, and yet with Streep at the microphone, talented as actress and singer in equal measure, I found myself as thoroughly engrossed with the musical postscript as I had been with the dialogue preceding it.

The noticeable weak link is Springfield. His acting is not bad by any means; he’s just noticeably outmatched by Streep in every scene they share. He delivers a speech late in the film about how much he loves his kids, and his mid-Atlantic drawl and crisp, Jimmy Stewart delivery felt like an artifact of a bygone style of acting. It felt rather out of place, like he was trying much too hard in the presence of an actress who was comfortable enough not to need to. That said, Springfield is an order of magnitude better at acting than Pierce Brosnan or Russell Crowe is at singing, so if the musical genre demands crossover performers, it seems that I prefer it the Springfield way. Director Jonathan Demme impressed me here as well. This is a step outside of his prior genres (best known for The Silence of the Lambs), although the most direct spiritual predecessor to this film is his 2008 indie drama Rachel Getting Married. Like that film, Ricki and the Flash is a close-knit, dysfunctional family tale that rarely feels slight, despite its pairing with a screenwriter and genre that often risk being so.

And at this moment, I’m sad we couldn’t podcast this, because this is where Ricki and the Flash would play us out.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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