Meryl Streep is ready to rock out. She’s standing on stage, ready to play yet another concert at her local watering hole with her band, The Flash. Rick Springfield is standing by her side, strumming the final melodies of a Tom Petty track. The 66-year-old, three-time Oscar winner — decked out in hair braids, leather pants and enough jewelry to make Ryan Murphy’s hipster witches foam with envy — turns to the crowd and starts singing a rocker’s cover of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” If this isn’t a surreal moment, I don’t know what is.
When you look at something like Ricki and the Flash, it’s hard to imagine what Meryl Streep can’t pull off. Coming off of the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a stint in the YA movie The Giver, and her pill-popping role in August: Osage County, Streep completely leaves herself behind as she dons another head-to-toe transformation. Ricki is a struggling musician. She left her husband Pete (Kevin Kline), her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) and two sons, Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Daniel (Ben Platt), behind in order to pursue the life of a rock star. Years later, while working a day job as a cashier for a high-end grocer and performing with her band at night, she gets a call out of the blue. It’s Pete, and their daughter’s husband left her for another woman. Believing that her birth mother is the only one who is actually available and able to jolt her out of her depression, Pete asks Ricki to come home.
Now, I spent the majority of my childhood watching ‘80s and ‘90s rom-coms and feel-good movies with my mother, so when I say I saw the plot’s development unfold from a mile away, I’d like to think all those man hours weren’t logged for nothing. It’s a shame, given that the script for Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash was written by Diablo Cody, but it still amounts to the same formula. Ricki’s return home after all these years is rocky (no pun intended). Her instincts are to run away, but she tries to stick it out, especially when she encounters her kids’ step-mom (who, by the way is Audra McDonald). There are some intense and emotional encounters; and then there’s Ricki’s typical “get your life right” soul-searching moments before she eventually ties up the emotional loose ends.
At the end of the day, though, the expected moments in the Ricki screenplay don’t really matter. You know why? Because Meryl freaking Streep is playing a Springsteen-loving, Petty-playing rocker with enough covers of “Drift Away,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “American Girl” to satisfy us for days. If the posters are any indication, you’re not going to see Ricki and the Flash for any nuanced story structure — though, that would’ve been nice. You’re coming to see Meryl Streep. She’s the focal point of this film and she does not let us down, which is most impressive when you look back at how the story plays out.
Gummer is another major draw. As the self-destructive Julie, we first meet her at her lowest point -- and like her real-life mother, she lets loose and runs wherever the crazy takes her. Gummer has a handful of juicy moments, like the formulaic yet entertaining awkward dinner scene. While the rest of her family (except her birth mom) are all dressed to the nines at this conservative restaurant, she’s in sweatpants and slippers, flaunting uncombed bedhead, and stirring the familial pot to a boiling point. Then, there’s Rick Springfield, who also can’t go unmentioned as Ricki’s love interest and lead guitarist for her band. It’s hard not to love the Zoot singer, even while his character, also, isn’t all that unique. But he, too, makes up for it with his signature charm and puppy-dog eyes.
Ricki and the Flash struggles a bit with flow, especially as the first half of the film works out a rhythm before things drastically changing course. All of a sudden, you’ll find yourself in a chunk of musical moments with barely any dialogued scenes spaced in between them. Looking at this film from a musical standpoint, that’s what you would call poor planning. Again, this is not Streep’s fault. I’m still blown away by the fact that she learned guitar and sang all these songs herself. In the film’s defense, the only promise it ever really made was featuring another eye-popping Streep role, and it delivered in that regard.
By the way, you can totally download Streep’s full cover of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” on iTunes. You only hear her intro for this in the actual film, but $1.29 will get you the entire two-minute-and-11-second song. It’s worth every penny.