In the very lengthy filmographies for Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and director Jonathan Demme, “Ricki and the Flash” will never be among their standout movies. Nevertheless, the utter professionalism and commitment of these talented people to less-than-stellar material make the film watchable at all times and even touching now and then.
The family comedy-drama involving, among other things, the fringe world of rock musicians who never made it big is actually right up the alley of Demme and Streep. Demme, of course, has made many fine musical docs and performance films so his world intersects with the rock world often.
For all her drama awards, Streep began in musical theater. (The first time I ever saw her she was starring on Broadway in the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical “Happy End” in 1977). Her vocal talents have never been fully exploited in movies other than in “Mamma Mia!” and more recently “Into the Woods” so she’s perfect for playing a guitar-shredding mama living the rock ’n’ roll dream.
Given this background, and the fact that the accomplished Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay, one’s expectations are far too high going in. The film turns out to be more conventional than you’d expect from Cody as it lacks any of the smart twists or sassy dialogue she usually produces.
On the other hand, it’s cool the filmmakers see no problem in putting their drama on hold while the movie’s band, the fictional cover band Ricki and the Flash, perform one of the movie’s 10 songs.
This makes sense actually: If the movie has a theme it’s that rock ’n’ roll can heal all emotional pain.
And maybe “Ricki and the Flash” might have been a more significant entry on everyone’s filmography if Cody had investigated that pain with more rigor.
The movie begins with the band rocking out in a Tarzana nightclub — that’s Tarzana deep in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley — with slick moves and a passion for the music. You might notice the patrons do not exactly fill the joint and are mostly on the far side of 40 but then again maybe it’s Monday night.
The next sequence serves up a shock. Singer-guitarist Ricki, aka Ricki Rendazzo, works the next day as a cashier at supermarket with a young man perhaps a third her age supervising her with a steely no-nonsense demeanor.
The pursuit of rock ’n’ roll dreams has apparently come at a cost: Ricki and her bandmates, especially lead guitarist Greg (‘80s hit-making rocker Rick Springfield), live on the edge of poverty, a paycheck away from total insolvency.
Ricki, you soon learn, has another aka — that of Linda Brummell, a Midwest wife and mother of three who abandoned those responsibilities eons ago to move to the coast to pursue rock ’n’ roll fame.
The particulars of this radical lifestyle change remain vague throughout the entire movie. You’re asked to imagine most of this including the intervening years when Ricki apparently “forgot” she even had a family before the Flash.
It’s rather late in the game for Ricki to play mom as is made clear by the cold reception she receives not only from Julie but her two brothers, Stan (Josh Brummell) and downright hostile Adam (Nick Westrate).
But headway is made at least with Julie. As far as Stan’s upcoming nuptials to his wary fiancée (Hailey Gates) and Adam’s gay status, a situation Ricki has chosen to ignore most his life, all that remains in limbo.
Before long Pete’s current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) comes rushing back from an emergency visit to an ailing father — her absence being necessary to get the plot going — and sees to it that Ricki is out of the household that afternoon.
Back in L.A., Ricki realizes she must patch things up with Greg, whose love for her she has too long ignored — she’s a commitment-phobe if ever there were one — and must decide whether to go back to Indiana to attend that wedding.
Another odd thing about Ricki, one that probably wasn’t worth bringing up since the writer doesn’t make something out of it — she’s apparently a far-right Republican with an American flag tattooed on her back.
In any event, the Ricki-as-mom thing comes into play only briefly, between songs and family situation comedy, much of which stems from family members speaking too loudly in public places about their soap-operatic travails.
Too bad since sparks fly just about everywhere. Yet fires never catch. Streep and her real-life daughter Gummer create any edgy mother-daughter dynamic, enough so to make you wonder how things go down at Thanksgiving between them.
While Julie loves her “Mom,” as she calls her stepmother, there is no substitute for the real thing and clearly she has missed it. And just as clearly resents the fact she has missed it.
Streep and Kline suggest so very much about their long ago marriage in their brief scenes together. This is a particularly self-effacing performance by Kline who has worked with Streep so many times. He realizes this is her movie, clocks in as needed and beautifully works with her to flesh out the thinly sketched failure of the characters’ marriage.
Streep’s Ricki with her two boys, the more forgiving Stan and deeply resentful Adam, present possibilities unexplored as well. But Cody is intent on wrapping things up neatly, quite contrary to her approach in “Juno” and “Young Adult.”
Ricki was inspired, Cody says, by her mother-in-law, a lead singer in a Jersey Shore rock band despite being a grandmother of six. A great character and a great atmospheric arena for a film story but Cody never quite finds it.
The script feels first-draft-ish, the ingredients all there but the recipe not quite coming together. So what you end up with is a fine vehicle for Streep as singer and actress, a nice reminder that Rick Springfield did have an acting career too and is available for work and another chance to watch Streep and Kline perform.
While Streep and Gummer have worked together before, this film has the fullest, most dramatic confrontations between them. There’s real meat here and working with (against?) her mother, Gummer delivers her best performance of her still young career.
The songs are all recorded live and the soundtrack certainly benefit from this as they are kick-ass musical performances.
The chemistry among the band — that includes keyboardist Bernie Worrell; bass player Rick Rosas, who died late last year after filming wrapped; and Joe Vitale — clicks. The film is dedicated to Rosas.
The music alone is worth the price of admission. But it might have served the movie better had the filmmakers not realized that.
Opens: August 7, 2015 (Sony Pictures/TriStar)
Production companies: TriStar Pictures, LStar Capital, Badwill Entertainment
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Charlotte Rae, Nick Westrate, Hailey Gates, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Rick Rosas, Bill Irwin
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Diablo Cody
Producers: Marc Platt, Gary Goetzman, Diablo Cody, Mason Novick
Executive producers: Ron Bozman, Adam Siegel, Lorene Scafaria, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Stuart Wurtzel
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Wyatt Smith
PG-13 rating, 102 minutes