When I heard the news that director Jonathan Demme had died at 73, there were any number of movies I might have queued up to watch in his memory. I could have revisited “Philadelphia” or “Beloved,” or finally screwed up my courage to watch “Silence of the Lambs.” But the film I found myself truly craving was Demme’s last feature, the terrific, but little-watched “Ricki and the Flash.”
Written by Diablo Cody, “Ricki and the Flash” follows Ricki (Meryl Streep), the lead singer in a bar band who abandoned her family to chase her dreams of stardom, and who returns home when her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter), attempts suicide after her husband abruptly leaves her.
Ricki is one of the most interesting roles Streep has had in years. She’s selfish and prickly, even cruel — when her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield, in a lovely, soulful turn) mentions they’re dating on stage, Ricki tells the crowd they’re barely hooking up. Though her dreams of stardom didn’t pan out, Ricki’s clinging to her rocker style, layering on jewelry that holds up airport security lines and dressing, as Julie says in a bout of spite, “like a hooker on ‘Night Court.'” Her conservative politics are expressed mostly in slogans (she and Greg exchange conspiratorial theories about government surveillance and the Transportation Security Administration). And she mashes them up with a general inattentiveness that can prove hurtful to her children, badgering her gay son, Adam (Nick Westrate), about the possibility of marrying a woman, and insisting that her rock name Ricki (her real name is Linda) is an identity just as biological and essential as Adam’s sexual orientation.
Ricki has a tendency to suggest that the criticism aimed at her is the product of sexism. “He didn’t raise those kids. He’s a rock star. And more importantly, he’s not the mother. Daddy can do whatever he wants,” she grumbles of Mick Jagger from the stage one night. “He can take risks, he can get hooked on drugs, he can leave. Who cares, someone gets hurt along the way, if you get some great songs out of it?” She’s not wrong in the larger sense, but the movie doesn’t shy away from assigning her personal responsibility for her choices, too.
And for all these flaws, Ricki is a hell of a lot of fun. She gets Julie out of the house, and persuades her daughter to cut and wash her matted hair with the promise that they’ll use Julie’s ex-husband Max’s (Gabriel Ebert) credit card for the spree. When Ricki, Julie and Ricki’s ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) run into Max while they’re out for ice cream, Ricki is quick to confront Max and his new girlfriend. “Now you have two [dogs],” Ricki snaps at the other woman. “Woof, woof.”
If “Ricki and the Flash” were just a character study, it would be well-worth revisiting. But Cody and Demme crafted something more than that. Ricki’s trip to visit Julie sets off a sharp series of little confrontations around issues of race, class and politics.
At home in Los Angeles, she works by day as a checker at a Whole Foods-like store, where her younger manager (Aaron Moten) tells her tightly that “I need you to satisfy and delight the customer.” Hanging out with Pete, her ability to rattle off the codes for produce becomes a kind of party trick, but it’s one that carries with it a whiff of the help on parade: she’s doing this in a house with custom-designed palladian windows and a kitchen Nancy Meyers would love.
Her family scoffs at Ricki’s declaration that she voted for George W. Bush because “I support our troops,” but Pete’s new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald) isn’t even aware that Ricki’s brother died in Vietnam, much less that Ricki keeps a picture of him and the flag from his coffin in a small shrine in her home. The movie doesn’t go particularly deep on Ricki’s racial views, though she’s suspicious of President Barack Obama, but she obviously struggles with the extent to which Maureen has replaced her and sees herself as Julie’s real mother. It doesn’t help that Maureen in fluent in and adept at the “bougie [s—],” from brioche french toast and fancy coffee to the plantable wedding invitations, that Ricki’s children now favor.
The movie doesn’t resolve those tensions, and it doesn’t really try to; it would be false to pretend that Ricki can actually make recompense for her years of absence or her accidental cruelties. Instead, the characters learn to appreciate what they can about each other. Ricki develops a gratitude for Maureen’s steadfastness, while Ricki’s wild streak provides the necessary spark to melt her frozen relationship with her children. What Ricki has to give her family at the end of the movie turns out to be what they need at that moment. And sometimes, that’s more than enough.