Film review: Ricki and the Flash

David Gritten / 01 September 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten admires Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a failed would-be rock star in Ricki and the Flash.

I’m no longer surprised by the astonishing range of characters Meryl Streep can make believable on screen, so I took it for granted that playing a 60-something singer-guitarist in an obscure, failing rock band was something she’d take in her stride. 

And so it turnsout: she acquits herself well as leather-clad Ricki Rendazzo, leader of Ricki and the Flash, who perform in a down-at-heel bar in suburban L.A., frequented largely by a handful of nostalgic seniors. Wouldn’t you know it, Streep did her own singing and playing for the role.

While it’s a virtuoso performance in its own way, the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up. 

Harsh reality

As a younger woman, Ricki deserted her husband and three kids in America’s mid-west to seek fame in California as a rock star. One early forgotten album was followed by years of obscurity; her dreams were no match for harsh reality, and she now works by day as a supermarket cashier. 

The story proper kicks off when she receives a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline, Streep’s co-star in Sophie’s Choice more than 30 years ago.) He tells her their daughter Julie (played by Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) is in a deep depression because her husband has left her for another woman.

Tentatively, Ricki goes back home to try and help out, but she’s a fish out of water – Pete has become wealthy and lives in a sumptuous mansion with his nice, responsible second wife (Audra McDonald), while Julie and her two sons are less than thrilled to be reuniting with the wayward mother who deserted them.

If you’ve seen more than a dozen Hollywood films in your life, it won’t be a shock that the rest of the story meanders towards peace and reconciliation. 

En route, there are a few splendid moments, many of them from Gummer, who invests Julie with such a deep sense of alienation that she’s surly and badly behaved to a jaw-dropping extent. 

Streep elevates the film to another league

It’s a pleasant entertainment, but there are irritations in its execution. Ricki may dress like a bad-girl rocker, all tight leather with enough extraneous jewelry to alert airport security, but the music she chooses to play with her band is mostly cover versions of 60s mainstream hits. Why she took the radical step of deserting her family is never fully explained. And her love interest, a fellow band member (played by former pop star and soap opera idol Rick Springfield) is a sketchy, contradictory character. (It doesn’t help that Springfield’s acting limitations are thrown into sharp relief in scenes with Streep.)

Still, on a few occasions Streep elevates Ricki and the Flash to another league. In truth, there’s rather too much of the Flash performing, but when she sings the lovely old Dobie Gray hit Drift Away, we see her respond to its lyric about music’s transcendent, healing power. She closes her eyes and gives it her all; in short, she just gets it. This moment conveys more about Ricki than any number of contrived scenes that litter the film.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

A title like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl tells you a lot about a film, and could double as a stern warning to stay away. It sounds like one of those weepy, manipulative movies about a teenager with cancer (The Fault in Our Stars comes to mind). That is indeed its subject matter, but it’s handled with deftness and wit – a glorious surprise.

Its main character is Greg, a deadpan boy who survives high school by avoiding cliques and keeping friendships at arm’s length – except for Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he devises cheap parody movie videos with punning titles like Death in Tennis and A Sockwork Orange.

The story takes a sharp turn when Greg’s mother (the always excellent Connie Britton) hears that one of his classmates has cancer, and urges him to spend time with her. He’s faintly horrified; he barely knows the girl in question, and when he does visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) she’s equally wary, and emphatically isn’t looking for sympathy. Still, they go through the motions of being polite,  and gradually form a bond.

Funny and strangely wise

The film is scripted by Jesse Andrews, who wrote the successful young adult novel of the same name. It’s a little more twee than it thinks it is, yet it’s genuinely funny and strangely wise. 

The three lead teens are all winning (Olivia Cooke, who is British, is clearly a future star), and the cast is rounded out by smaller turns from seriously talented adult actors – Britton, Molly Shannon as Olivia’s faintly over-flirtatious mother and Nick Offerman as Greg’s hippyish father.

Unlike some films in this genre, it doesn’t tell the audience what to think and feel at every turn, as it wends its way from studied emotional detachment to genuine feeling. I can imagine Saga readers casting an eye over its title and concluding it isn’t for them. All I’ll say is: you may well be pleasantly surprised.

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