Ricki and the Flash is a bit of boomer fantasia

The Meryl Streep rock movie is marginally less embarrassing than the advertising campaign would lead you to believe.


Neil Young once sang that rock and roll would never die; in the 35-odd years since he said that, rock and roll has tried desperately to live up to that ideal despite a receding hairline, a bad back, diabetes and Maroon 5. Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash explores the twilight years of the (failed) rock and roll dream in a way that Demme should ideally be suited for — his intimate work relationships with aging rock stars like Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads and the aforementioned Young and his propensity for well-observed, intimate drama should be perfectly suited to the family dynamics of Ricki and the Flash, but the final product is a bit of boomer fantasia that falls way short of the mark.

Years ago, Ricki Randazzo (Meryl Streep) decided to follow her dreams of rock’n’roll stardom – trouble is, she was already married with three children when Father Rock came knockin’. Leaving her children in Indianapolis with her husband (Kevin Kline), Ricki moves to Los Angeles in search of leather-pant-clad superstardom. Thirty years later, she’s playing bar-band choogle standards in a suburban dive bar and in a tenacious relationship with her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield). She gets a call from her ex-husband, explaining that her daughter Julie’s (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) marriage has fallen apart. Ricki flies out to Indianapolis to be with a despondent daughter who has no interest in rekindling their relationship and a household that has very much adapted to a life without Ricki.

Ironically for a film partially about trotting out well-worn hits, Ricki and the Flash sometimes feels like a bit of a Greatest Hits for Demme and the film’s screenwriter, Diablo Cody. Ricki has a lot in common with Mavis, the protagonist of Cody’s Young Adult: they’re both self-obsessed and self-destructive, delusional about their own talent and selfish to the point of alienating the people around them. It also shares more than a little DNA with Demme’s other shattered-family dramedy, Rachel Getting Married — not to mention the fluid and dynamic performances scenes that are reminiscent of Demme’s multiple concert films.

The thing is all of it feels rote and tossed-off, lazy retreads of things both of them did better before. Cody’s script veers off in every direction, setting up a main plot (your daughter’s sad!) that turns into a subplot (the rest of your kids are sad too!) that just peters out by the third act (your son is getting married so you’ll have to wear a dress in public!). We’re not given much information about who Ricki was when she was still known as Linda, so her redemption arc feels forced and constrained until it culminates in an exposition spew between Streep and Audra McDonald (who plays Kline’s wife). It’s a character-based drama where the characters are approximate; despite a decent performance by Streep, her character never feels like more than a construction.

What’s particularly mind-boggling about Ricki and the Flash is the way it treats music from the CHOM drive time playlist as a force of cultural rebellion. Throughout the film, Ricki is treated like a pariah by most of society for her propensity to wear too much eyeliner and play the devil’s music – except the music she plays is U2, Tom Petty and Springsteen. There’s even a scene late in the film where Ricki and her band (the titular Flash) make a surprise appearance at a wedding and bust out into a little-known Springsteen b-side, causing everyone at the wedding to plug their ears and react in disgust as if fucking Throbbing Gristle just took the stage. Considering the multiple references to way edgier bands than fucking U2 both Demme and Cody have put in their previous works, I’m inclined to see this as a bit of misguided satire, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in this otherwise earnest, intimate drama.

Everything about Ricki and the Flash points to the ‘nice little movie’ school of filmmaking, something innocuous enough that you can watch it with your parents without the risk of having to sit through a sex scene. Considering the way Cody spectacularly flamed out with her directing debut Paradise a couple of years ago, it’s hard to hold the need to make something commercial against her. Considering the amount of talent at play here (Ricki’s keyboardist is played by none other than legendary P-Funker/Talking Head Bernie Worrell!), Ricki and the Flash can’t help but disappoint. It’s marginally less embarrassing than the advertising campaign would lead you to believe, but it’s eminently forgettable and more than a little sappy. ■

Ricki and the Flash opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 7. Watch the trailer here: