Ricki and the Flash is a film that is bad enough to hurt a lot of reputations.
Ricki and the Flash, directed by Jonathan Demme. At Somerville Theatre and other screens around New England.
By Tim Jackson
One night I caught Meryl Streep on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show talking about how she learned real guitar chords and sang the actual vocal parts for her new film Ricki and the Flash, which is about an aging rock singer alienated from her former family and needing to make amends. As usual, Fallon slapped his table and gushed (this schtick is getting really tired). Having made a documentary about a female rock singer, I was skeptical, but thought, how bad could this movie be? America’s greatest living actress plays a rock singer in a roadhouse band backed by Rick Springfield and some fine musicians — the film couldn’t be a complete disaster. Yes, it is.
In fact it just may be just that: all bad. Fighting the urge to leave the theater from the get-go, I waited patiently for a single moment of authenticity. My mind wandered. Who should we blame for this travesty? Was it a vanity project for Meryl Streep? Did screenwriter Diablo Cody think she could get away with pitching yet another script that appealed to nostalgic boomers endlessly hungering for affirmations of their youth? Did Jonathan Demme tell everybody to just relax and have a good time, and then forget to direct? This is a film that hurts a lot of reputations.
Let’s start with the Diablo Cody. Beverly Hills may not be the best place to look for the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. In truth, to call this a rock ‘n roll movie is a misnomer. Ricki and the Flash is essentially a clumsy rehash of soap opera clichés, filled with some of the worse dialogue I have heard in years. That Ricki is a rock singer is inconsequential. The story is really about a woman who has alienated her children and husband and for one reason or another (a wayward daughter and the impending nuptials of her son) must reconcile with them. Why and how she went astray is written off to musical ambitions. Her band plays cover songs. She can’t really sing or play. What ambition? She voted for George Bush, which is a fact worth exploring, but that revelation (and its dead-end irony) is left for us to ponder.
Not one character is given a semblance of convincing motivation or backstory. The performances, even from some usually good actors, are reduced to predictable sets of signature affectations. Only Audra McDonald brings a little bit of heart to her hackneyed dialogue (and she is the only one here who should be allowed to sing). Kevin Kline is cast as the ex-husband and has nothing to do, which he does with great charm. Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter, plays Ricki’s daughter, a thankless character who ends up taking the brunt of the film’s poor writing and directing. She looks like a figure out of the Walking Dead and never changes her affect, except for an occasional forced grin. Ordinarily a serviceable actor, Gummer gives what may be a career-destroying performance. Rick Springfield does what he can to play the hunky aging rock star. His performance is an accumulation of rock moves, meaningful on-stage glances, and a few seductive maneuvers.
Here’s the kicker: not even the extras are well directed! By the look of it, all of the film’s bar scenes were shot in one day. Ricki and the Flash’s gigs may be weeks apart, but the barroom extras — straight out of central casting — are always sitting in the same seats! Why didn’t the director or his assistant at least bother to reposition them? And the background talent manage to overact in every scene they are in. Whenever Streep’s Ricki has a fish-out-of-water moment, every extra has to turn and sneer or look aghast. We get it. Will someone please calm down the extras?
And what of America’s greatest living actress? After 19 Academy Award and 23 Golden Globe nominations she should be forgiven. After warbling in the kitchy musical Mama Mia! (which grossed just under 610 million dollars) and singing well in Into the Woods, she now feels entitled to rock out. But characters need backstory. When none is provided the audience falls to understand what the actor is up to. This time around, because Streep has no well-known model to imitate (Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher) nor emotional heights to which she can soar (Deer Hunter, Sophie’s Choice, et al), she is stuck playing attitude. The hackneyed script provides no backbone for the posturing, so Streep may be trying to method act a rock and roll pose. Every Streep trick — from guilty swallowing to the carefully played asides — feels forced. And what’s with the dopey braided hair? She didn’t need to gussie up the role with such silly touches. Even the make-up flops.
The one performance I kept falling back on was Rick Rosas as “Rick the bass player.” Rosas, a wonderful session player, tragically passed away from lung disease before the film finished shooting. Each time he is on stage he looks like he could care less. He’s done this a million times: no false stage grin, no fake camaraderie. At last, here was someone in Ricki and the Flash who understood what it is really like to play in bars for 40 years. Finally — a moment of truth.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.