Ageing rocker Ricki Randazzo (Meryl Streep) barely holds on to her grocery checkout job during the daytime. She’s sarcastic, bitter and chatty. But those liabilities become assets at night, when she becomes the frontwoman of a scruffy bar band and her local fans howl appreciatively through the hits.
This zesty, defiantly awkward shambles of a film might be tagged a domestic drama, as it plucks near-penniless Ricki from her beer-soaked California stage and flings her to the Midwest. Back in the suburbs she has to deal with her wealthy ex-husband (Kevin Kline) and their suicidal grown-up daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter), a victim of Ricki’s long-ago abandonment. Tough stares and words await, very much of a piece with screenwriter Diablo Cody’s earlier credits, especially her underrated comedy ‘Young Adult’.
Director Jonathan Demme has an impossibly rich CV of female empowerment (‘Married to the Mob’), musical euphoria (‘Stop Making Sense’) and failed American dreams (‘Melvin and Howard’), and this movie lets him do everything he’s terrific at.
‘Ricki and the Flash’ gives Streep her most emotionally blocked character in years, and she delivers it without caricature. There’s an underlying realness to her that defies glibness. Ricki is graced by an angel at her side in the form of Greg (real-life musician Rick Springfield), her boyfriend and lead guitarist, and she finds her way to the soul of several songs, including a Lady Gaga cover. There’s devastating connection and tears in these moments: delicate gratitude in ‘Drift Away’, and nothing short of maternal redemption in a roaring version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’. As the band plays on, you wonder if that’s all a film really needs.