Film & Television

‘Ricki and the Flash:’ Meryl Streep and a Motherhood Not Taken

4f721c72_ricki-and-the-flash-DF-00539_rv2_ext_cp_rgb.xxxlarge_2xMeryl Street as Ricki Rendazzo in “Ricki and the Flash” (Sony Pictures)

How many of us reach midlife and realize that we missed our shot? We were scared to try or we didn’t recognize an opportunity when it came calling. Or, for so many women, we were too busy taking care of everything and everyone — sons, daughters, husbands, homes — that we let our own dreams dissolve.

Ricki Rendazzo doesn’t have these regrets.

A couple of decades ago, Ricki did the unthinkable. She walked out on her family to pursue her true passion: rock ‘n’ roll. She gave everything up for her one big chance, and — after committing this greatest of maternal sins — she didn’t make it anyway.

This all sounds fairly tragic, but the new movie Ricki and the Flash spares us grand apologies as well as searing recriminations. Ricki, played by the mother of all actresses, Meryl Streep, may not have found the success she went after, but she still believes she made the right decision. Her three now grown children openly resent her, but they’ve moved on. Her ex-husband, Pete, is happily remarried, living in a perfectly appointed McMansion while Ricki struggles to afford tatty rooms in a flea-bitten L.A. motel. Nevertheless, Ricki defends her choice.

“It was my dream,” she tells her ex-husband.

“I thought we were,” he answers.

The two agreed to disagree a long, long time before the movie starts. And you get the sense that they would still be living utterly separate lives if their daughter Julie’s husband hadn’t left her and Pete hadn’t picked up the phone. With his wife away, Pete needs a partner and Julie needs a mother. The question, of course, is whether Ricki can step up.

At this point, there are several ways Ricki and the Flash might have gone. A fish-out-of-water comedy: punk rocker vs. the gated community. Or earnest family drama with secrets and lies and Oscar-worthy revelations. But, thankfully, Ricki avoids most of these Hollywood formulas. Much of the credit goes to La Streep, of course. Throughout her career she’s managed to add dimension and truth to even the flimsiest of characters. And, in truth, reviews to date have been mixed. Ricki and the Flash earned a fairly modest $7,000,000 in its first weekend. But its release is expanding to an additional 400 screens in the coming weeks. Hopefully, it will find its audience (and recoup more of its production costs), because the movie has merit.

The mighty Meryl is supported by a fine cast (most of whom are onscreen less than they deserve to be). And in this case, both the director and the screenwriter have taken some unexpected turns that make an otherwise fairly lightweight family “dramedy” better than it might have been. Director Jonathan Demme has an eclectic resume. He’s perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs. But he also made one of the greatest concert films of all time, Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads. His love of live music is evidenced in Ricki in several long scenes of the Flash rocking covers of U-2, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, even Pink and Lady Gaga for a devoted following at a rundown bar in Tarzana.

Demme draws from two other earlier films as well, 1986’s Something Wild and the more recent Rachel Getting Married. In the first, wild thing Melanie Griffith takes recently divorced yuppie Jeff Daniels for the ride of his life. In the second, another unconventional family member, Anne Hathaway, tries to come to terms with her sister’s nuptials and her own mental illness. Demme understands that family milestones — weddings and divorces — are “come to Jesus” moments. In Ricki and the Flash, issues that began with Ricki (whose real name, by the way, is the less flashy Linda) and Pete’s divorce surface as their children form (or dissolve) their own unions. But the film is more honest than most. In real life, fences can’t always be mended, no matter how lavish the wedding or whose mother sings at it.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (another Oscar-winner, in her case for 2007’s wonderful Juno) keeps it real, often surprising us when scenes don’t play out exactly as we expect. She gives Ricki’s character a quirky combination of snark and sweetness. And, she manages to express — quite beautifully — not one but two major life lessons. The first is a challenge really. Why, she has Ricki ask, is it OK for male rockers to walk away from their family obligations but not OK for their female counterparts? “Mick Jagger has seven kids by four mothers!” she points out to her audience. Later, in a more private moment, Ricki’s guitarist and lover, subtly portrayed by a nicely aged Rick Springfield, explains the essence of parenthood. “It’s not their job to love you. It’s your job to love them.”

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  • Leslie in Oregon August 11, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Thank you for this incisive review of this fascinating film.

  • Roz Warren August 11, 2015 at 9:33 am

    “…a nicely aged Rick Springfield!” Well that sounds intriguing.