Rickie and the Flash is a big hearted, excessive wreck of a movie, as vital and messy as rock and roll music itself. It features a powerhouse performance by Meryl Streep, wonderful acting from an ensemble cast, playing sharply written characters in a wonderful Diablo Cody screenplay, in which nothing really is resolved at the end, because that’s just how life works sometimes. My wife and I both loved it. Sure, it’s flawed, and maybe a trifle sentimental, and a lot of critics haven’t liked it. Ignore them. When Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield rock out to Bruce Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down, the movie comes together perfectly.
Streep plays Rickie, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for a California bar band by night, and a grocery store cashier by day. Her life is a mess. She’s broke. She has an on-again, off-again thing with her lead guitarist, Greg, a wonderfully grizzled Rick Springfield. The rest of her band consists of elderly rock and roll wrecks: Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell (real life session musicians, all of them terrific). Streep learned guitar for the movie, and Springfield only agreed to act in it if the Flash got to really play; if they could plausibly play a rockin’ set in a real venue. The bar scenes are alive and electric. You sense how much the crowd there, in the bar, loves these guys; how much it means to them, to come every night and have a beer and listen to great old-time rock and roll. And their song list was terrific: from Tom Petty’s American Girl to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, from U2’s I still Haven’t Found What I’m Lookin’ For, to Sam and Sham’s Wooly Bully.
(In fact, I found myself wondering if the Flash are too good; if it was plausible that a band this solid would never have broken out of the bar/cover band ghetto. I don’t think so, though. I think there are a lot of terrific bands out there like this; not quite able to give up the music that is life itself to them, but also never quite famous or successful).
In the meantime, Rickie’s children despise her, and her daughter has attempted suicide. Years before, she left her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) and their three children to pursue the life of a rocker. She put out an album, then her career receded into obscurity. Pete’s now a successful businessman, living in Indianapolis, and his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), has raised the children. The two sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), have become successful young professionals. Josh is engaged, to Emily (Hailey Gates) who spends much of the movie looking horrified at the prospect of a life with this aging gargoyle of a mother-in-law. Adam is gay. In an interesting twist on expectations, Rickie, the Californian, is a die-hard Tea Party Republican; the rest of her family is vegan Democratic. Adam particularly loathes his mother, for what he perceives as her homophobia; Josh is more willing to forgive, as long as it doesn’t involve actually, you know, inviting her to his wedding.
And Julie, the oldest child and only girl, is a suicidal mess. With cause; her husband has left her for another woman. And Julie is played, superbly, by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer.
Ordinarily, Julie’s crisis is the kind of thing Maureen would cope with. But her father is dying, and Pete, feeling out of his depth, calls on Rickie. Who does, in fact, fly home, and tries, awkwardly, to help. And there are a lot of wonderful cultural crisis scenes. Rickie’s a rocker; she wears more eye makeup than Alice Cooper, more leather than Joan Jett, and more bling than Mr. T. Meanwhile, her family–the Brummels–have become tastefully upper-middle-class, live in a McMansion, adorn the family kitchen with uplifting/humorous little posters. The first time we see Julie, she’s a total wreck; hasn’t showered in days, hair tangled, wears pajamas, flies off the handle. In fact, Rickie does help her, a little. They go out together (on Julie’s husband’s credit card), have a manicure and pedicure and eat food that’s bad for them and do Mom/daughter things. But Julie also blows off a therapy appointment, and then the three of them, Rickie, Julie, Pete, smoke some weed together, so when Maureen comes home, she hits the ceiling. And sends Rickie packing.
And that’s one of the best scenes in the movie. I’ll grant that it’s a bit odd for a movie musical, starring Audra McDonald, to have Meryl Streep do all the singing. But McDonald is tremendous in this movie, a beautifully controlled and calibrated performance, balancing righteous indignation with genuine compassion. It would be so easy for Maureen to be the villain in this movie; the cold-hearted bitch keeping Saint Meryl from her children. It would be equally easy to make this a movie about selfish Meryl, heedlessly ruining her children’s lives to pursue a hopeless and foolish dream. But the movie doesn’t go either of those directions. Maureen comes across as, well, a really really good Mom. She’s the step-mother, obviously, but she put in the time; she raised the kids, and did a darned good job of it, and will cope with Julie’s illness, as she copes with everything, and we see, clearly, that she loves Julie every bit as much as Rickie does, only probably more effectively. And while Rickie’s clearly a woman who made some choices she regrets, we also see her in those bar scenes. We can see just how brilliantly good The Flash are, and how playing with that band, with those guys, is about as much joy as she ever gets to experience in life.
Jonathan Demme directed Rickie and the Flash with his usual humanity and compassion and intelligence. Demme’s 70 now; this might be his last movie. But as always, the acting is marvelous. Streep is as terrific as always, as is Kline, and as are both the young actors who play her sons. Mamie Gummer is brilliant. But the real revelation here is Rick Springfield, who almost walks away with the movie.
I’m not going to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that nothing is particularly resolved, but that the characters all resolve to be grownups, set aside their pain and resentment, and acknowledge the essential messiness of love. And then the Flash play, and rock and roll works its magic. I loved this movie. If you don’t love good rock and roll, well performed, don’t bother with it. If you do, it probably won’t be in the cineplexes for long. Catch it soon; you won’t regret it.