Or is that just my own ageism and prejudice showing? Surely it must have something to do with rock’s inevitable suggestion of, and link to, sex, drugs, and youth. As Springsteen-loving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie demonstrated recently by offering a New Hampshire breakfast crowd some unsolicited info about his use of the non-rhythm method, no one wants to hear about elder sex while eating — or ever.
Actually, I have to confess that just in glimpsing the ad campaign for Meryl Streep as a senior rocker in “Ricki and the Flash,” I got a bit of the excruciates. The cheesy side braids, the stumpy-heeled, buckled half-booties: all major cringe factors. (While in real life, at 66, the actress is the picture of graceful aging.)
So it’s with much relief that I can reveal that the new Sony release, “Ricki and the Flash,” premiering this weekend, is a much better, way-less-embarrassing film than the promos would suggest.
After all, it stars Meryl frickin’ Streep, and is directed by Jonathan Demme (“Stop Making Sense”) and features Rick Springfield (“Jessie’s Girl”) as her love interest, on stage and off.
Demme practically invented the American concert film, so the movie opens in a completely hypnotic way, with Ricki’s band performing (a real live performance captured on film) an intoxicating cover of “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. With a delightful you-go-girl spirit, Ricki exudes passion, and even youth, on stage. Streep learned to play the guitar (Neil Young taught her her first chord) for the film, and that’s her own voice, unsweetened.
So she’s more like a Bonnie Raitt with no taste. The screenplay was written by Diablo Cody, based on her own mother-in-law, who fronts a band at the Jersey Shore.
But in the movie, the music is so stellar that it blows away the originals. That goes for renditions of Lady Gaga and Pink songs, too.
That starts making sense, and a lot of it, since the players consist of Springfield, bassist Rick Rosas (Neil Young, Joe Walsh), Joe Vitale (Walsh, The Eagles) and Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer Bernie Worrell (Parliament/Funkadelic). Sadly, Rosas died shortly after filming, and the movie is dedicated to him.
And herein creeps the first bit of cognitive dissonance: If in performance Ricki and The Flash consistently kill, why are they the permanent house band (“since 2008,” Ricki says proudly) in a half-empty dive in Tarzana, Calif.?
There are several contradictions like this to ponder in between electric musical performances.
Not surprisingly, Cody’s screenplay is filled with amusing pop cultural references. But the dialogue is sometimes excruciating, and the plot feels flimsy, and a bit clichéd, with its reliance on two weddings as devices. (Although the nuptials give Cody a chance to make lots of gluten jokes, and riff on huge, “conflict-free” diamond engagement rings, “small batch” bourbons, and a “playful take on a Kir Royale.”)
Some of that is intoxicating, to be sure, but Ricki is the only character with any depth. In fact, Ricki Rendazzo (aka Linda Brummell) turns out to be an anomaly wrapped in tight leather pants: a runaway-mom/ L.A. rock musician/Republican-libertarian/Obama-hater. That’s a lot to unwrap.
While you gotta love Meryl, as Ricki she is often unlikeable: narcissistic, guarded, clueless and selfish. (And obviously uglified, given the hair and makeup. We get a glimpse of her without the braids and war paint once in a bathroom scene, and the camera can’t help but love her otherwise delicate, aristocratic face.)
It gives nothing away (it’s in all the trailers) to say that she is called out of her odd Republican-rocker existence (where she has a crummy little apartment and barely scrapes by as a checker in a Whole Foods-like place) to go back to Indianapolis, her ex-husband, and the children she hasn’t seen in years, to respond to a family emergency.
Kudos to a film for being one of the few to show the reality of being a senior who is working two jobs, declaring bankruptcy, and barely able to afford a plane ticket back to the Midwest to see her kid.
And that daughter, Julie (played by Meryl’s real offspring, actress Mamie Gummer) is suicidal after her husband leaves her for another woman. Julie, who won’t get out of her bathrobe, has a blazing introductory scene as a gorgon-Medusa (the most severe case of unwashed bedhead you’ve ever seen) furiously slamming down the stairs to scream at the mother who abandoned her. It’s powerful.
Ricki arrives in full leather rocker armor, and her daughter asks her: “Do you have a gig, or do you always dress like a hooker in 'Night Court'?”
The return is the usual fish-out-of-water story: Ricki’s ex, Jeff, played by Kevin Kline in an uptight sweater vest (although he’s more liberal than she is), has moved his family into a Mac (not Mc) Mansion, and Ricki goes around gawking at the space and luxury like a kid.
Given her bankrupt state (literally and figuratively), it’s hard to present herself as any help, or even as a grown-up, to her family. Her behavior has obviously caused another generation of pain, and she’s a broken mess.
This exploration of what a mother is, or should be, could have provided something profound. Ricki even gives a little speech about how Mick Jagger was allowed to have seven children by four women, and hardly see them, but no woman is allowed that freedom. (Certainly some female musicians have made it work, with difficulty.)
There are some interesting psychological implications (that both mother and daughter have mental issues), but the kids are mostly cardboard cutouts, as is the ex and his new wife, played by Audra McDonald in a head-scratching bit of casting. (Did the producers say “Hey, we have not one person of color in the cast, so let’s shoehorn Audra into the second wife role?”) She doesn’t get to sing, unfortunately, but does get to be Ricki’s Little-Miss-Perfect foil.
The big problem is that we have no idea what anyone in this upper-middle-class family does for a living or whether they have any talents or passions they want to follow. For instance, Julie is about 30, and, yes, it’s terrible that her husband left her. But doesn’t she have a job or friends? That goes for the ex-husband, and Ricki's sons and daughter-in-law, too. All we know is that they seem to be rich and uptight country-clubbers. But the prissy daughter-in-law is a vegan environmentalist at the same time. (Huh?) And one of the sons is gay, and Ricki is not terribly receptive or aware.
Instead, we get the usual movie cheerer-uppers — haircuts, manicures, dinners — to bring us to a happy ending. And, of course, a wedding, that features a show–stopping Springsteen number. By the way, Ricki is not completely broken. Her younger, hunky, musician/boyfriend (Rick Springfield) gives her all the right advice: Like that it doesn’t matter if her kids love her. It’s her job to love them. I went to a screening sponsored by the Mamarazzi, a group for moms, where Springfield was interviewed afterward by journalist Denise Albert. He said he actually took time off to raise his kids, and as a result, even he had trouble getting back into the biz. More audible swoons.
In the end, we feel for Ricki, but there’s something frustrating about the unresolved story. The movie lacks depth, but at least it has soul — in fact, an old soul, which comes, in a very unembarrassing way, from the music.