By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Seeing Meryl Streep dissolve into rock musician Ricki Rendazzo in Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash,” it occurred to me how lucky I am. The simple facts of chronology precluded me from seeing baseball players like Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb ply their craft. But in that fickle, sometimes great equalizer of fate, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the Great Streep’s career, right from the beginning. A few films in, I actually disliked her in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) because she gave my man Dustin the gate. I have since forgiven her.
Fast forward a few decades and you can’t help taking her for granted. She’s always going to be good. More likely the question is, will she score yet another best actress nomination? She already has 19. That’s seven more than Katharine Hepburn (who has one more win—4) and nine more than Bette Davis, esteemed colleagues in that pantheon of which she’s now a full-fledged member.
Such accomplishment comes with a challenge. Each succeeding performance is an in event unto itself, which can easily upstage the drama encompassing it. But the greats have a way of ameliorating that, employing some sort of secret thespic supercharger to direct our focus. Therefore yes, we know that’s Ms. Streep up there on the silver screen, larger than life. Still, as the reels roll, we’re certain that she’s also Ricki, the struggling singer who gave it all up for her music.
So of course, as the captivating lead singer of the title rock group that is a regular attraction at the Salt Well, a San Fernando Valley saloon, the actress also convincingly plays rhythm guitar. The train of big money stardom pulled out of the station some years ago. But having never given up their allegiance to the god of Rock ‘n’ Roll, like countless other, ‘should-a-been-famous’ bar bands around the globe, these grass roots altruists play the oldies and throw in a couple new ones, just to prove they can. They have a small but devoted following.
Exploring this oft-overlooked bit of sociology, director Demme, working from a script by Diablo Cody, attaches a rather traditional tale about the family Ricki Rendazzo, a.k.a. Linda Brummel, forsook in service of her muse. Expect the usual fallout, recriminations, awkward moments and tender epiphanies when, informed that her recently betrayed daughter has gone off the deep end, Ricki flies back to her prior world to stop the bleeding and mend fences.
There, literally back home in Indiana, she is greeted by her former hubby, Pete, who sent out the S.O.S. A nice guy played by Kevin Kline, his workaholic ways have bought him a McMansion in a gated community. Although remarried, his wife (Audra McDonald) is off visiting her sick dad in another state. Hmm? Oh, it’s OK. It’s even OK, in a soap opera sort of way, that Ricki, a supermarket cashier when she’s not rocking and rolling, has no money to stay in a hotel. Hmm?
Before long, we meet the immediate victims of Ricki’s mortal sin, gathered to vociferously impress that there is no statute of limitations for deserting one’s family, with the two-timed daughter, Julie, played by Streep’s real-life offspring, Mamie Gummer, leading the tirade. While it’s too early to say whether or not Miss Gummer is a chip off the old icon, her frighteningly unkempt martyr assures us that Hell still hath no fury like a woman scorned. Adding their own vitriol to the fire are twin brothers Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate).
The subsequent train wreck and rather predictable upshot veers to the clichéd side of things. But again, at the risk of seeming très ad nauseam, and using an adverb as an adjective, it requires noting that Miss Streep utilizes the dysfunctional typicalness as a telling contrast to how far from the fold the housewife turned rocker has drifted. In a poignant monologue from the stage, a bit in her cups, Ricki notes how it’s funny that Mick (Jagger), who has seven children by four women, is “still the man.” Yet she, who gave up hearth and home for her passion, is deemed a monster.
Playing kindred spirit to her diva, real rocker Rick Springfield is decent as Greg, who’d like to be more than just Ricki’s lead guitarist. And Flash members Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale and Bernie Worrell, accomplished musicians all, create an authentic milieu as our gal’s loyal band of cohorts. But like the patrons of the story’s Salt Well, we’ve come to see Ricki, to once again be amazed, and left to wonder not what “Ricki and the Flash’s” blazing star can do, but rather, if there’s anything she can’t do?
“Ricki and the Flash,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures release directed by Jonathan Demme and stars Meryl Streep, Rick Springfield and Mamie Gummer. Running time: 101 minutes