Movie review: Ricki and the Flash

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

Following your dreams is one thing.

Following your dreams, moving to California, abandoning your family in Indiana who grow to resent you (mostly), and finding your dreams aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be; ah, well, that is quite another.

It’s a lesson Ricki Rendazzo aka one time suburban wife and mother Linda Brummel (Meryl Streep) learnt many years earlier, after her fateful decision to fly the domestic coop in favour of rock ‘n’ roll glory resulted less in partying hard with Rick Springsteen every night than working a minimum wage job during the day in a supermarket and fronting an, admittedly very good, in-bar band at night.

It’s not that her life has fallen in a miserable, leather-clad heap.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) is too good a movie scribe to simply present those sort of well-worn cliches up to us on an all too-scuffed plate; rather she presents us with a woman who is well-loved at the Sand Well, a respectable enough, cosy bar in Tarzana, California, where she is adored by the bartender Daniel (Ben Platt), and loved, though not openly, by lead guitarist in her band Greg Sandoval (Rick Springfield).

She may not be playing to stadium crowds, and her nightly playlist may consist of rock ‘n’ standards by The Rolling Stones and Springsteen (who features prominently in the finale) but she lives her new, reasonably impoverished, life with gusto and all the verve you could ask of a rock chick living the (limited) dream.

That she isn’t quite as happy as she could be is obvious through the cracks, and sometimes uncomfortably out in the open, but admitting that could mean bringing down the whole costly house of cards and Ricki simply isn’t prepared to do that even if means giving up love, true love, with Greg.

 

 

But the luxury of pretending the good but not perfect present is all there is, and was, and the past simply didn’t exist, ends when he gets a call from ex-husband Peter (Kevin Kline), who stayed behind in Indiana, raised the kids with new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) and bought an insanely big house with a kitchen large enough to house every last one of Ricki’s staunchly-loyal bar fans.

Daughter Julie (Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) has been left by her husband Max (Gabriel Ebert), and with echoes of her mother’s earlier abandonment playing in her mind like a demented old record, has attempted to take her own life, spending her days in the wake of her failed attempt in the same clothes with personal hygiene pretty much a thing of the past.

Maureen is conveniently away in Seattle visiting her ailing father so Peter summons Ricki, who to her credit, well aware of the reception that awaits her from her kids, heads east to face an entirely different kind of music.

In the film’s low key way – director Jonathan Demme offers us up drama that is light on the soap and heavy on the “this is life in all its awkward glory; deal with it best you can” – Ricki and the Flash then serves us up a lesson, albeit one not plated with too much cliche and only a small side order of cliche and manipulative emotion, on the way dreams are only worth something if you don’t trash your life to make them happen.

The message seems to be follow those dreams sure, and give them all the effort in the world since who knows you might even realise in some small form; but don’t sacrifice those you love to get there.

It’s not delivered with anything like the stern school ma’am tut-tutting you might expect, and Ricki and Pete’s lives are presented as both equally valid entities, but it is there nonetheless even if any lingering resentment on behalf of the kids – Pete seems to have dealt with his Ricki demons years ago – who include sons Josh (Sebastian Stan), and Adam (Nick Westrate) is handled with only a few cracklingly good shouting matches and some lingering looks of resentment.

Revolutionary in intent and execution it may not be, but thanks to Cody’s emotionally-honest script which doesn’t sugar coat the realities even if it isn’t as nakedly realistic as it could be, Ricki and the Flash takes a good stab at laying bare the fact that nothing in life isn really free.

 

 

Armed with a killer soundtrack and impressive performances by Streep, Gummer and Springfield – whose chemistry with Streep gives their resultant relationship, a product of Ricki’s first eye-opening trip home – Ricki and the Flash treads the line between gut-wrenchingly real and hallmark happy quite nicely.

It will never be mistaken for one of those grim dark indie dramas where resentment is spelt with a capital “S” and every single word is spat out with the scornful bile of the long abandoned seeking to revengefully wound where they can, but it nevertheless establishes that our actions have consequences, and opportunities for do-overs are rare to non-existent.

That Ricki gets one, and does something with it, is thankfully not presented as some kind of road to Damascus moment; Ricki largely stays Ricki, WASP-alienating rocker and all, but she is a more-rounded person, her new life enriched by making peace with the old.

All this self-revelation is, quite naturally, wrapped up with a feel good finale at Josh’s wedding, but so well has the journey been plotted, and so believable the adroitly-played the relationships between all the main characters that you’re happy to go along with it, partly because Streep is just so damn convincing as a well-meaning, if misguided rock ‘n’ roller (her musical performances are brilliantly done).

Ricki and the Flash may not find itself with a slew of awards come Oscar time but you know that was never the intent; instead, Demme and Cody offer up a low key, drama-lite treatise on the pursuing of dreams and the fact that while life may never quite put all the pieces together quite the way you want, that’s OK and everything will be fine, in one way or another, somewhere down the track.

 

 

 

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