Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.
2015’s Ricki and the Flash doesn’t know what’s about to happen. It doesn’t know it would silence the successful string of Singing Streep films. It doesn’t know it’s Jonathan Demme’s final film. And it doesn’t fully realize the changing conservative political tide that was about to crest over America the following year.
Ricki and the Flash is a rock ‘n roll fable about Ricki, a prodigal mother (Meryl Streep) who returns to bourgeois Indiana from her life as a working-class musician to help estranged daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) through her divorce and suicide attempt. Her return reignites hostilities with ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and sons Josh and Adam (Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate). But with a little classic rock, the atypical family learns to accept one another. Sorta.
Ricki Rendazzo (real name Linda Brummell) is “complex” and “flawed”, to use 2015’s euphemisms. She is a rock ‘n roll baby boomer whose ideology is in direct conflict with the music she sings. She makes disparaging racial remarks about Obama, thinks all Asian people look alike, has a Don’t Tread On Me back tattoo, and thinks her son Adam’s homosexuality is a passing lifestyle choice. While Ricki seems to be composed entirely of cognitive dissonance, the film interrogates none of these flaws, which rings a little tragic in a post-Trump world.
Uncharacteristically, Demme’s camera feels invisible. This film has a straight-forward, matter-of-fact style that works to humanize its grisly protagonist. However, true to form, Demme composes some crackerjack musical sequences. Even the surprising renditions of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and P!nk’s “Get This Party Started” are shot with earnest verve. Demme, till the very end, has a wonderful eye for music. He knows how to cut to compliment the rhythm and is still masterfully able to get us inside the songs.
Written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body, Young Adult), this off-kilter rock dramedy has a lot of good things going for it. An incredible cast headlines the film; Kline and Streep, pairing now for the third time, bring their tender chemistry back full circle. Streep and real-life daughter Gummer have a wonderful working rapport that makes the snipes we’ve come to expect from Cody feel all that more delicious.
There are plenty of winners in the supporting cast, too. Rock icon and consistent charmer Rick Springfield is a delight as Greg, Ricki’s somewhat boyfriend and lead guitarist of The Flash. Multi-Tony-Award-Winner Audra McDonald plays Maureen, Pete’s all-too-patient second wife. Unlike the film, we will return to her.
2015’s Ricki and the Flash doesn’t know what’s about to happen.
Ricki and The Flash’s tone runs all over the place. While the film doesn’t get bogged down with subplots or unnecessary twists, the awkwardness of the film’s halves makes for a jolting momentum. Gummer does the best she can, finding golden moments of humor in a character that has to take a backseat to her family drama.
The film turns into a sentimental melodrama, as the second half forgets Julie’s struggles entirely and focuses on Ricki patching things up with her sons. All this while Ricki and The Flash intermittently pad the film with rousing covers of classic rock songs. They end the wedding with Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together.”
But can they ever really work together? Won’t Ricki’s love let her family down because of her beliefs? Looking back on contemporary reviews at the time, 2015 was happy to tepidly tip-toe around Ricki’s bigotry. Streep, never one to take on politically radical roles, pulls back just enough to let us know this is one background the grande chameleon is unwilling to disappear into. (Why she thought The Iron Lady wasn’t as fraught, I still have no idea.)
Many critics avoided the politics altogether. But some critics praised the rebellious mother for her strength in pursuit of her dreams, despite societal pressure. Some even thought she should have been more outspoken instead of letting her family “walk all over her.” Others saw the family’s animosity stem not from bigotry, but being “fundamentally decent people whose choices have put them at odds with one another.”
There were a few critics who acknowledged the troublesome politics, but downplay their severity. Ricki is described as more of an experiment than a person we should take seriously. Others focused on how Demme’s use of ritual and music “dissolve[s] [the] boundaries” that Ricki’s beliefs put up in the family. To some extent this is true. Ricki performing at her son’s wedding seems to make amends. But this moment plasters over Ricki’s politics, it does not acknowledge, correct them, or show they’ve changed.
This isn’t too say 2015 overlooked Ricki’s problems altogether. Slate critic Dana Stevens rightfully finds Ricki’s attitudes mournfully unexplored, despite it being a logical conversation to have. In his New York Times review, Bob Vergara describes Cody and Demme as “conflict-averse” and is justifiably confused as to why “liberal-minded Demme” didn’t interrogate further. But even these reviews do not think Ricki’s problems are remarkable enough to investigate fully. They are happy to leave the film with a patronizing and benign “ok, boomer” commentary and move on.
Watching Ricki and the Flash after 2016 makes us realize how dangerous Ricki is.
Essentially, the Hollywood of 2015 had an optimism that the following year would prove completely unfounded. Even though the increased public discourse on police brutality and the rage of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri had begun in earnest the year before, many still thought 2016 would maintain the era of liberal centrism ushered in under the Obama administration. Only Variety’s Andrew Barker, in acknowledging the changing shift in classic rock demographics, seems to sense the lurking trembles of right-wing populism in the film’s subconscious.
Though the film believes liberal goodness will change hearts and minds, watching Ricki and the Flash after 2016 makes us realize how dangerous Ricki is. Demme and Cody see Ricki and her politics as a flash in the pan, the last gasp of a dying ideology. Only now do we see the flash is actually the flicker of an oncoming train entering a long dark tunnel.
This is a movie about a wandering generation that believes in fierce, unregulated independence (for some). Ricki set out following the promises of rock ‘n roll only to find that failure was still possible. Yet she refuses to see any link between her poverty and the ideologies she espouses. Time has shown that Ricki doesn’t have to wait long. Her lost generation was about to find itself to monstrous effect.
And this distance is no more palpable than when we watch how she itself interacts with McDonald. Take for instance, the first scene with Ricki at The Brummel’s palatial abode. They already hint at this new wife, but she’s not at home because she’s visiting her sick father in Seattle.
Ricki sarcastically comments on the marble foyer to which Pete replies “sometimes I feel like Jefferson at Monticello.” Which, you know, makes McDonald into Sally Hemmings. If you don’t know that one of the most acclaimed black performers of our time is in this movie, you might forget to “yikes” when Maureen shows up an hour later.
When they are on screen together, the tension between Ricki and Maureen feels heightened amongst a new political climate. Far from a meek and mild second wife, McDonald turns Maureen into a strong and intelligent force. We hold our breath, waiting for racial hostilities to ignite. We’ve seen how people like Ricki who come into power respond to black dissenting bodies. But it never comes.
Ricki and the Flash captures a particular moment in American history where our liberal elite thought their reign was far from over. They were too scared to address existing racial tension because we were “post-racial.” Everything was going to be fine. The film paints Ricki as a fossil, a relic from a fading time. Demme’s trademark humanism encouraged sympathy for a woman left behind by the system.
But now, because people gloss over her bigotry, this sympathy has turned to fear and loathing. We know it is entirely possible that Ricki doesn’t learn her lesson and that, one day, in the not so distant future, we would have to confront her ideologies on a much grander scale. Watching Ricki and The Flash now reveals how ephemeral film can be and how our relationship to what it preserves changes over time. Far from static, films change over the years because the reflection changes. As such, Demme’s final work leaves us looking at a funhouse mirror in which we can see our social distortions. We owe it to his legacy to learn from it.