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.
For the early parts of the movie, screenwriter Diablo Cody of Juno fame plays the requisite culture clashes as broadly as possible. Ricki is a rock-and-roll Republican, trash-talking Obama on stage and sporting a giant, patriotic back tattoo. Pete, meanwhile, is an uptight businessman who owns a poodle named Sigma and lives in a mansion he compares to Monticello. The other Midwesterners who populate the film seem to have fallen through a wormhole from Footloose, regarding Ricki’s fashion and music with open contempt. The family dynamics initially aren’t very nuanced, either. Though Gummer’s first blast of rage at her mom feels real and scary, everyone else talks with a degree of bluntness that rings false; most of the plot development happens through knock-down, drag-out confrontations. Thankfully, though, Streep’s character doesn’t always say what she’s feeling—under her burnout affect is a yearning for forgiveness that’s all the more poignant for going unarticulated.
But just when the story beats start to feel unbearably obvious—mother/daughter bonding over manicures, hints of a reignited flame between divorced spouses, an awkward reunion dinner—the film changes keys, becoming less family dramedy than a concert film. Demme lets entire songs play out onscreen, performed with a surprising degree of sharpness and sensitivity by The Flash. The music’s helped along by the fact that Ricki’s in a blossoming romance with the band’s guitarist, Greg (real-life rocker Rick Springfield), and their chemistry vests familiar standards like “Drift Away” with new emotional power.
In the final act, the setting and peripheral characters stay somewhat cartoonish, but the relationships between the family members mellow in surprising and not-altogether-explained ways. The expected climactic conflict—maybe an emotional breakdown, maybe another big fight—never quite materializes. Instead, there's a series of limited reconciliations that result more from generosity of spirit than any grand gesture. It’s almost as if Demme and Cody, having realized that all the dramatic turns the story could have taken would have been clichés, just decided to give up and film some songs. Or maybe the idea was simply to provide the kind of rock-and-roll payoff that Ricki’s band excels at: miraculous and small.