Ricki Randazzo is the kind of person who thrives in the spotlight, who blossoms under it into her brightest, most confident self. That's where we first see her in Ricki and the Flash, black boots tapping, boho braids flying, on stage with her eponymous band, digging into Tom Petty's "American Girl" like they're in front of a sold-out arena packed with screaming fans.
They're actually playing to a half-empty San Fernando Valley dive bar peopled with wizened regulars and some slumming hipsters. That doesn't stop Ricki — legal name Linda Brummel and played with unmistakable zest by Meryl Streep — from giving the song her all and bellowing out a rock star–worthy "Thank you, Tarzana!" before dutifully segueing into a cover of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" to please the younger folks in the crowd.
Ricki and the Flash is written by Juno's Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme, and its marketing has positioned it as a Mom Movie about how a wacky aging rock ’n’ roller reunites with her straight-laced children and teaches them to loosen up. The showcased joke a delighted Streep makes about graying muffs is an indicator that the movie's saltiness is of a safely low-sodium variety. This isn't untrue, necessarily, though it undersells the sometimes astringent emotional journey of the movie, not to mention its abiding empathy. Ricki is due to make amends, not act the saucy not-yet-grandma. And she's actually the one with the conservative streak.
Yes, Ricki and the Flash is less Banger Sisters and more a red-state revisiting of Rachel Getting Married, Demme's 2008 family drama in which Anne Hathaway played a self-destructive, attention-hungry addict released from rehab for her sister's wedding. There's a wedding at the end of Ricki, too, though it's in Indianapolis and far less freewheeling an affair than Rachel Getting Married's loose-limbed, multiculturally utopian nuptials. When Ricki makes her arrival, everyone stares at her thrift store dress and leather jacket and whispers behind their hands — the prodigal parent returns.
Ricki is a heartland rocker who votes Republican ("I support our troops!" she retorts) and has a Gadsden flag tattoo on her back. She blithely implies to her infuriated son Adam (Nick Westrate) that he chose to be gay and later compliments the lone Asian man at an event by telling him that he looks just like Bruce Lee (he does not). She is the movie's larger-than-life embodiment of the distant relative who makes everyone at the Thanksgiving table squirm by offering a coded explanation for why she thinks her street's gone downhill since the new neighbors moved in. But Ricki's outlook, while sometimes ignorant, is never colored with malice, while the embarrassment and unease with which she's treated by members of her family suggests there are some biases people still feel totally comfortable expressing in the open.
Ricki's wild-card politics are a prime indicator of how the divisions in Ricki and the Flash are less straightforward than one party being liberated and laid-back and the other uptight and repressed. They're at least as much if not more about class, in that Ricki's choices and aspirations have shunted her into a blue-collar life in which she shows up in a cab she has no money to pay for. When her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline, daddishly dignified) calls her back to Indiana to support their daughter, Julie (actual Streep offspring Mamie Gummer), during her divorce, she sees that the family she left behind years ago to chase musical stardom has ascended to an upscale existence of custom bathrooms and fridges full of kombucha. They've become the people who buy hundreds of dollars worth of organic groceries at the Whole Foods stand-in at which she works, while she's the cashier they barely notice.
The gap between Ricki and her family is more than one of culture and income — though that's part of the reason her son Joshua (Sebastian Stan) has been keeping his engagement a secret from her. But plagued with guilt, and defensive because of that, she's also stayed away for years. That doesn't stop her from resenting the woman Pete went on to marry (Audra McDonald, unrufflable) for being there when she wasn't. There are ways in which Ricki and the Flash is just as cornball and affected as promised, particularly in the scenes Ricki shares with her children, but the complicated nature of Ricki's pain and self-pity isn't one of them. When she has a minor meltdown on stage, bitterly decrying how male rock stars like Mick Jagger get to have children with multiple mothers, wander away, and remain beloved, while women who do the same are monsters, it's a resonant larger point and a unfair personal one.
Mothers are absolutely expected to prioritize their children over their own desires and aspirations — the idea of a woman leaving, as Ricki does, gets treated as a betrayal of gender. But no one would nominate one of the famous, errant men she's talking about as dad of the year. It's not acknowledgement of this inequality that she really wants but forgiveness from a family with valid reasons to resent her. "It was my dream!" she howls at Pete, who responds, "I thought we were your dream." Ricki and the Flash doesn't condemn its heroine's decisions, but does ask her to level with the consequences of them, ones that she's been running from for years.
If Ricki had made it big, she might have felt more comfortable in her choices — fame's a heady affirmation, the world bestowing its fickle approval. But Ricki and the Flash demands she make peace with them as she is, as a supermarket cashier and cover band singer who's been holding her guitar player boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) at arm's length emotionally. Ricki is a showy role, and as sometimes happens with Streep, the character's such a plum one that you become aware of the work the forever formidable actor is doing, the delight she takes in little flourishes like the moment she shuts herself in her borrowed room and exchanges a look with the dog perched on her bed.
But that's never the case onstage, when Streep's pleasure and Ricki's dovetail perfectly for musical numbers that are warm and intimate and sum up the congenial messiness of the movie at its best. Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn know when to bring the camera up close to take in their star and when to turn it back on the crowd soaking up her energy. And the songs Streep makes her way through include both some familiar tunes and some unexpected ones. She can convince you that for this woman, making music onstage was important enough to make some immense sacrifices for, her love genuine enough to bridge some great divides.