Rock and roll, according to the myth of rock and roll, is about the big, the extreme—the arena tours, the excessive hotel tabs, Ozzy Osbourne chomping a bat head. But rock and roll as it’s practiced is often more of an intimate, humble pleasure. Such is the case for the band that gives Jonathan Demme’s new film Ricki and the Flash its title. The movie opens on them gleefully recreating “American Girl” at a dive in Tarzana, with both the grizzled musicians and their sparse audience of barflies sharing in the joy of live performance.
Meryl Streep’s Ricki, we’re likely meant to think, is a certain kind of American girl herself, one who chased great ambitions at great cost. Decades ago, she left her husband and three young children, moving from Indianapolis to LA for stardom that she didn’t end up finding. Now, she works at a chichi grocery store where her weekly paycheck wouldn’t cover the contents of most of the shopping carts she rings up. As a parent, she’s distant in a way that you rarely see movie mothers be—she missed her daughter’s wedding, is unaware of one son’s engagement, and still doesn’t know her other son’s gay.
A call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) lures her back to the Midwest, to help their daughter Julie (Streep’s own kid Mamie Gummer) cope with the end of her marriage. There, Ricki must face both the contempt of the people she abandoned and the ghost of the life she could’ve had. Pete’s suburban existence is as un-rock-and-roll as it gets, but Ricki can’t help but be amazed at the shiny appliances and fully stocked fridge in his house. When his current wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), cooks breakfast for the family, Ricki takes in the picture of domestic bliss silently, shakily, before leaving the room.