Ricki and the Flash (PG)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer

One of the trends in Hollywood is to offer “silver screen” options for mature film viewers who want cinematic themes that appeal to their generation. The baby boomers who want more from their film experience than stories from Marvel comics or John Green (Paper Towns, The Fault in My Stars). Those eager to attend the cinema with an audience that does not require vampires, aliens, superheroes or toilet humour to entertain them. Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) provides this type of film with Ricki and the Flash. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), this is a different type of “coming of age, again” journey. One that is seen through the eyes of a senior rocker who is struggling through her life choices.

At night, Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) fronts a local pub band called Ricki and the Flash. During the day she works at a check-out at an organic grocery store. The band has a loyal fan base, but is caught between the generational void of its vintage rock heritage and trying to appeal to a younger audience. This musical time warp leaves the group relegated to the local pub scene in Los Angeles.

While dwelling on her stagnant career, relational difficulties and money woes, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline). He needs help with their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer — Streep’s real-life daughter), who is suffering through the trauma of her husband abandoning her. Ricki returns to help her daughter and attempt to reconnect with the family she left behind years ago to follow her rock and roll dream. Her children have grown and her ex-husband has been exceptionally successful in busines. He’s happily married. During her short stay, Ricki has to come to terms with the sacrifices she made in her life and how those decisions effect all of her relationships. This humorous drama is played out against the backdrop of two different life experiences — Ricki’s current lifestyle and the privileged one she left behind to follow her artistic dream.

Cody’s script provides a glimpse into Ricki’s life of regrets, the lack of contentment with her current career and a multitude of familial challenges. Even with the serious situations occurring within the storyline — such as attempted suicide, divorce and parental abandonment — the production manages to maintain the essential humour that pulls the the script along. Among the laughs, director Jonathan Demme also manages to provide the needed discomfort associated with seeing someone past their prime attempting to find their identity in the past. This tension between humour and the reality of life’s regrets balances out the storyline and provides a touch with reality that makes the story relatively appealing.

The challenge for the film comes in the acting performances. Streep is not past her acting prime and she seems to be able to play any role that is put before her, but Ricki Rendazzo is not quite the right character for her. The problem lies in the reliance on her musicianship instead of her acting. Streep manages an admirable musical performance, but she sits well outside her regular thespian comfort zone. Surrounding Streep, the various roles become a hodgepodge of stereotypes and the performances become mere caricatures of various walks of life. Opportunities to develop the depth of the individual characters are missed. Interestingly, the only actor who seems comfortable within his role is Rick Springfield (General Hospital), primarily because he is playing to type as an actual ageing rockstar. When he is on stage, he is believable and adds to the whole experience quite well, but his chemistry with Streep never develops into a believable spark. Also, Streep and Kline’s characters do represent a generation that have gone through a multitude of changes in their family and want to figure out what to do with the ageing process. But they seem to be walking though the motions and lack the passion needed to be convincing in their relationship.

The scene that epitomises the tension of the film is during one of the pub performances. Ricki proves she can perform Bruce Springsteen and the vintage rock of the ’80s, but forces herself to connect with a younger generation by performing Lady GaGa. This scene produces an uncomfortable stage performance that epitomises what audiences will experience while watching this film. A group of people who are trying to prove that they are current, but prove to be trying too hard to make things work. If Demme had done more to develop the characters as opposed to showing so many musical performances, the impact would have been more profound. In the end, Ricki and the Flash will most likely appeal to the “silver screen” audience, because the humour and situations are written with this generation in mind, but the story will only connect with that demographic.

Even if this film does not resonate with all audiences, the multiple messages that come from this tale of the ageing rock-and-roller provides rich opportunities for discussion. Raising questions such as: How long should we hold onto our dreams? What do we have to sacrifice for the sake of our families? What should our response be to the inevitability of ageing?

All of these questions hit at different stages of life, with different levels of severity. This life presents so many obstacles for our personal desires.  Then there is the consideration that it is all fleeting and gone in an instant. Yes, that’s big stuff to think about.

It is hard to imagine that two hours of entertainment can open the door to so many of life’s considerations. ButRicki and the Flash might spark that and, hopefully, viewers don’t just stop at mulling over what the movie presents. Because there are answers to these questions.

The suggestion at Reel Dialogue and Russelling Reviews would be to look into the Bible to find the answers in God’s purpose and plans for you, me and our world. How Jesus is the centrepiece of what it means to truly live, no matter what is happening with our dreams, desires and disappointments.

Leaving the cinema…

The story and performances are rather pedestrian in presentation and lack the depth to build a broader audience. But this film may lead to some deeper conversations afterwards. Its value is found in how it raises topics for discussion, not necessarily in its entertainment value.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

  1. What does the Bible have to say about difficult times? (John 16:33, Romans 5:3-5)
  2. Can we find true redemption in this life? (Romans 3:24-26, Ephesians 1:7)
  3. Where can we find real love, hope and joy in this broken world? (Acts 24:14-16, Romans 8:24)

Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.