In the deliciously tangy-and-bitter comedy Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep tears up the screen as Ricki Rendazzo, a singer in a cover band (the Flash) working out of a bar in Tarzana, California. Under black vinyl, chains, and a sheet of blonde hair braided at the side, she burns through songs by Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen in a voice that’s not world-class but powerful — she has great chest tones. She’s what you’d call an ornery old gal. She voted twice for George W. Bush, hates Obama, and thinks gay people choose their predilections. The regulars adore her, although she doesn’t make enough to quit her day job as a cashier at an obvious stand-in for Whole Foods, catering to crunchy types with more money than she’ll ever have.
Ricki Rendazzo is not pretending to be something she isn’t, but when she takes a call from her ex-husband in Indiana we learn she was once upper-middle-class Linda Brummell, who left her daughter and two sons behind — shattered — to pursue her dream of singing. That daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s actual child), attempted suicide following her own husband’s departure — hence the phone call. But how helpful Ricki/Linda can be is a big question. She has kept her distance from them and any other kind of long-term commitment. Ricki and the Flash charts what happens when she flies to Indiana to face a different kind of music.
If you can’t believe that the exuberantly lowbrow Ricki was married to straight-laced workaholic Peter (Kevin Kline) and that her kids are ultra-liberal and ultragreen, you’re not going to like the movie. You seriously have to suspend disbelief. The screenwriter is Diablo Cody (of Juno and Young Adult), whose characters are often coarser than they need to be — anything for a laugh. The difference is that she’s working with director Jonathan Demme, American cinema’s most inclusive humanist, and though her glib dialogue doesn’t always mesh with Demme’s looser, more generous disposition, the tonal seesaw keeps you off guard. It’s a good tension.
Ricki’s family — not to put too fine a point on it — hates her, and the scenes in which she endures their anger, refusing to apologize but shaken by the intensity of their feelings, are so grim that you know a kiss-and-make-up ending is unlikely. Although it’s fun to see Streep acting opposite Gummer and Kline (who terrorized her three decades ago in Sophie’s Choice), there are no in-jokes. Kline plays it prim and awkward, while Gummer — with limp hair and an ashen complexion — doesn’t fall into an easy mother-daughter rhythm, even when Ricki sweeps Julie off to the beauty parlor. The movie keeps its edge. It’s hard in this context to admire Ricki’s decision to leave her family, but when she returns to that Tarzana bar and acidly laments that male musicians like Mick Jagger have kids with different women and no one demonizes them, you have to concede the point.
Ricki and the Flash swerves near stereotypes and swerves away at every turn. Audra McDonald is Peter’s second wife, a seeming killjoy who makes you like her for taking the long view of her family’s welfare. Musician Rick Springfield is Greg, Ricki’s sometime lover and the group’s hot-dog guitarist: He has a dopey sweetness that makes you want to see Greg and Ricki together.
The movie jells in a final sequence, the wedding of Ricki’s other son. It’s a typically mean Diablo Cody setup, the moneyed crowd looking with disgust on Ricki and Greg — and at first it reminded me how some people felt that the abrupt, cynical ending of Young Adult, Cody’s flop with director Jason Reitman, was a mark of integrity instead of too damn easy. Demme is made of different stuff. As he showed in another wedding movie, Rachel Getting Married, there’s comfort in ritual and especially music, which has the power to dissolve boundaries. No, it doesn’t heal primal wounds. It just gives you a glimpse of people transcending, for a moment, their individual grief. And it sends you home singing.
*This article appears in the August 10, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.