Meryl may have three Oscars, but she’s never sported a side braid before.
Such is the life of Hollywood’s greatest chameleon. Streep takes the stage and roars to life as Ricki, a staggering rock singer who’s never quite made it, in the new film Ricki and the Flash. (The Flash is her band of misfit boys, including a disarming Rick Springfield, playing her sometimes love interest.)
The problem with Ricki — the problem that makes the film have more guts than you’d think — is that she cut out on her kids to pursue her dreams of stardom. Some fictional mums leave because they’re addicts, or fall in love with someone else, or for some other reason that provides a definable line of right or wrong.
Ricki just wants to sing.
And boy, does she.
She also wails on the guitar; this week Streep told Jimmy Fallon that her first guitar lesson was 45 minutes with Neil Young. Streep howls through “Drift Away,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” even some Pink and Lady Gaga. And a sweet original song, “Cold One,” which she sings to her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) and distraught, disheveled daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter), who’s mourning her zygotic failed marriage to a creep husband. We know Gummer’s character is in terrible shape because her hair looks like the nest of a Rat King.
But the film, directed by Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense) and written by Diablo Cody (Young Adult and Juno) wends and swerves and totters — a lot like Ricki’s onstage presence, actually — offering up all sorts of meditations on how we view mothers who can’t abandon their dreams, and asks: Who defines what’s a worthy dream, anyway?
If Ricki left her kiddies to be, say, head of Deutsche Bank, or a pediatric oncologist, would her family resent her so much? Probably not.
Or if Ricki’s only album catapulted her into the Stevie Nicks or Bonnie Raitt stratosphere, would her kids blame her for leaving — or be grateful to be swimming in royalties? The film spotlights the fact that society’s so quick to heap praise on winners and throws the losers down the well. And that’s exactly where we find Ricki.
The Ricki we receive wears leather pants, is inked with a “Don’t tread on me” American flag tattoo on her back, and buys a dress for a wedding at Goodwill. She’s playing gigs at a bar. By day she works the cashier at a Whole Foods wannabe, bantering and glibly tolerating a manager with a rigor mortis smile who warns her not to alienate the customers. (The exchange will make you question your next checkout line experience. Who knows what hidden life your cashier leads?)
Oh, and this Ricki is a Republican.
She’s also a hell of a lot of fun, able to soothe her daughter’s troubles with one mani-pedi outing. As with all Cody Diablo scripts, Ricki is loaded with pop culture references and quirky asides. As Ricki says, “A heart is like a Big Mac. It lives forever.”
Apart from the jokes and the family drama there lies a deep conflict, which bursts forth in the form of an onstage monologue. Ricki goes off about how being a woman who still pursues a career — specifically being an artist — is seen as selfish after having children. She points out that Mick Jagger has seven kids from four different women and no one says boo to him.
The film raises the question about whether a failed artistic endeavor ever justifies itself. If you leave your kids and succeed, is your choice considered more valid?
And if you leave and fail, what’s the statute of limitations on returning? Under all the “leaning in” and “having it all” conversations there’s the bubbling subtext that traditional jobs are the most valuable ones. Strapping on a guitar and singing for people? Oh, please.
Ricki wades in the deep end during a trip to her family’s Midwestern home, faces criticism from her two sons, and confronts her ex’s new wife (the perfect Audra McDonald, sidestepping the typical step-monster cliches but still giving Ricki a haughty dressing down while she’s just out of the shower). Ricki is apologetic in only the way she can be, and harbors intense guilt over leaving. Her redemption is decades in the making and when it comes … well, be prepared to want to sing along.
Arriving on a summer weekend that sees another comic-book reboot (Fantastic Four), it’s refreshing to see something different that has the rarest of Hollywood qualities: heart. In Ricki and the Flash, no one’s sticking to the script. Instead, they belt out one catchy tune after another.