Film and TV

In Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep Reinvents Herself — Again

Jonathan Demme’s rock-and-roll dramedy Ricki and the Flash exists in a wormhole where the last five decades of pop culture are a blur. There’s 66-year-old Meryl Streep, playing a broke singer who ditched her family to dominate the stage with the whiskey growl of Janis Joplin, the jangly jewelry and thigh-high boots of Heart’s Nancy Wilson, the sideswept hairdo of Bananarama and the swagger of Courtney Love. She puts these totems of the goddesses to use covering Lady Gaga for the youngsters in the crowd — that is, if a “crowd” entails two dozen barflies in Tarzana. Demme himself doesn’t seem to get out much. Here, college kids hang at out-of-the-way Valley bars with people three times their age, while fifty-year-old white men recoil from Bruce Springsteen as though he were as outrageous as Gwar.

What year is it? Who can tell? The confusion is both accidental — like the scene that hinges on the illegality of gay marriage, shot months before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling — and intentional, as Ricki herself refuses to obey time. She likes her pants tight and her mascara thick. She’s draped in fifteen necklaces and studded with nine rings in each ear. And, in a middle finger to life post-9/11, she doesn’t give a damn if that makes her a pain in the ass to airport security. Ricki rejects growing old. Or rather, she’s oblivious to what we expect old people to be.

But the broad strokes of Ricki’s life have truth. Women — especially women of her era — are supposed to grow up, play nice and stay home. Those who leave their husband and three kids, as Ricki did twenty years before the movie starts, are demonized. But that’s not the only consequence she faces for ditching Indianapolis to follow her dreams: She’s sacrificed her past and she’s kneecapped her future, trading a McMansion for a rat-trap California apartment with rusted railings, and the big bank account of her ex, Pete, for a grocery cashier gig, where she makes $447.74 a week.

What’s refreshing about Diablo Cody’s script is that Ricki never feels a lick of regret. On stage, she’s aglow — even if afterward, her on-again, off-again boyfriend (Rick Springfield) cracks, “She thinks this is Madison Square Garden.” The plot kicks off when Ricki’s daughter, Julie (real-life Streep scion Mamie Gummer), attempts suicide after her husband leaves her for another woman, forcing her estranged mom to fly home to provide comfort — or, really, a fresh target for Julie’s wrath.

Gummer enters the film like a demon: hair matted, sweatpants unwashed, scowl affixed. You can practically smell her through the screen. Other movies would pressure Ricki to fix her “mistake” — say, quitting the band for a triumphant family hug. But this flick loves its leading banshees. Ricki and Julie skulk around Indianapolis gorging on doughnuts, getting witchy manicures and frightening the squares.

Still, the movie is at war with itself: You sense Cody wanting to tell a rich story about a rebel with flaws. Yet Demme sprints through Ricki’s sins, crowns her a saint and spends the rest of the running time taking pot shots at women with stick-figure families on their cars and cardigans around their necks.

Mostly, Ricki and the Flash is a throwback to Reagan-era comedies that mocked the millionaires and celebrated the broke. Ricki may be a time-blender, but Demme’s worldview is totally 1985 — despite a sly aside that Ricki, Queen of the Kooks, voted for George W. Bush twice. “I support our troops,” she shrugs, and has an American-flag back tat to prove it. Only an actress with Streep’s charm could dis Barack Obama, tack on a sarcastic “No offense” to her band’s black keyboardist, and still win back the liberal arthouse crowd.

Kudos to Streep for the film’s biggest risk. But its biggest statement is a quick, sharp dig when Ricki takes the stage to point out that Mick Jagger has seven kids by four women, and no one tells him to quit rock for parenthood. The ladies in the bar somberly nod. Then Ricki’s guitarist boyfriend silences her by joking, “You’re scaring some of the guys up here!” Even with a mike, Ricki can’t get heard. And the show goes on.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.