Film review: Meryl Streep shines as a rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman

Meryl Streep steps up to the microphone in the aging rocker flick Ricki and the Flash. Photo: Sony Pictures Meryl Streep steps up to the microphone in the aging rocker flick Ricki and the Flash. Photo: Sony Pictures

In a film industry where every studio release is engineered to appeal either to all audiences or hyper-specific target demographics, the fact that a film like Ricki and the Flash found release is refreshing. Baby boomers/Gen Y, liberals/conservatives, wealthy/working class, no one subset of American filmgoers will find their entertainment whims catered to in this tale of the reunion between rocker Ricki and the now-adult family she left to pursue her passion. But like most rock ‘n’ roll songs about the greatness of rock ‘n’ roll music, the film’s initial enthusiasm for itself only carries things so far before you start wishing that someone would channel its energy into something beyond empty self-celebration.

Meryl Streep plays weekend warrior Ricki, who left her Indiana family decades ago to pursue music in L.A. Following a gig, Ricki gets a call from ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), telling her that their daughter Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) needs emotional support in the wake of her divorce while her stepmother is out of town. Pete’s present life is one of comfort, support and bougie liberalism, a far cry from the working class, rocker dive bars that make up Ricki’s world.

Though Ricki is in the end disappointing for failing to commit to its premise, it is a premise worth considering. The best parts of the film come when director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob) and writer Diablo Cody (Juno) point out with laser focus exactly where the economic, social and political rifts in the U.S. manifest themselves, and the pair do an admirable job depicting the massive distrust that exists between subcultures.

Everything in Ricki’s life is torn apart by these schisms; we first meet Ricki in her element, playing Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” followed by grating commentary on the greatness of America (except Obama, she repeatedly notes). Her star then falls as she reluctantly launches into “Bad Romance,” to appease the bar’s younger patrons. When she’s not playing covers as lead singer of her band The Flash, she works as a cashier at Total Foods, a lefty-branded grocery store where the clientele regularly pay as much per visit as her entire weekly paycheck—clientele that includes her estranged family. On a more subtle level, Julie takes Ricki to task for her irresponsibility while wearing a shirt for celebrated L.A. punk band X, which was part of a musical movement in reaction to the arena rock on which Ricki thrives.

Disappointingly, Ricki seems to shy away from its themes precisely at moments when they would have been more potent. Ricki thrives in the safeness of classic rock rebellion, and voices her right-wing beliefs quite often, from voting for George W. Bush twice because she “supports the troops” to supposing that her gay son chose his lifestyle. She also, apropos of nothing, quasi- apologizes to her black keyboard player for hating Obama. So it’s hard to believe that she wouldn’t have any reaction to the children’s stepmother—the loving, nurturing, intelligent, protective Maureen, played by Broadway star Audra McDonald—who succeeds in the ways Ricki fails. After a certain point, Ricki encounters caricatures of the sort of people that’d rub her the wrong way, yet all encounters pass without incident, positive or negative.

There is the beginning of a terrific movie here, with occasionally inspired dialogue and terrific performances from Streep, Gummer and Rick Springfield as Streep’s lead guitarist and love interest. Whatever insights Ricki has are weighed down by far too many musical interludes and a lack of anything resembling a point, as the film limps to a conclusion unworthy of its themes.

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Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX