Those of us who knew Jonathan Demme in high school recall his undaunted enthusiasm, his fierce concentration, his persistent predisposition toward compelling sounds and sights – traits that over the next half century would fuel his development as one of the world’s finest film directors. This week those youthful impressions clashed with reports that health concerns are curtailing his attendance at promotional events for “Ricki and The Flash,” his newest motion picture now at Contra Costa Stadium Cinemas.
Jonathan and I were juniors at Southwest Miami High when we met shortly before he transferred to our neighboring arch-rival, Coral Gables High. We both wrote for local newspapers and circulated among the same friends, so we maintained contact after both of us left Miami. I watched Demme evolve from our local movie critic into a contemporary of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog – folks fluent at telling compelling stories rooted in fact and fiction.
Unfortunately, “Ricki and The Flash” is a ragged fiction, unsure of its footing, neither as a dramatic comedy nor as an uprooted concert film. With screwball comedies (“Melvin and Howard,” “Something Wild,” “Married to the Mob”) produced alongside concert films (“Stop Making Sense,” “Swimming to Cambodia,” and “Storefront Hitchcock”), Demme spliced his early reputation onto both genres. But here he offers an awkward hybrid – a shortened storyline with a hefty setlist of live music.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody said she wrote with Meryl Streep in mind for the title role of Ricki/Linda, modeled on the writer’s mother-in-law who fronted a Jersey dive bar rock band. Streep, who played the mother-of-all-political-thrillers in Demme’s 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” leaped at her chance to play an aging tattooed ex-mom female rocker. Indeed, the participants agreed to delay filming several months while Streep learned guitar under the guidance of former rock idol Rick Springfield who plays Greg, her lead guitarist/boyfriend.
Springfield’s performance is a delightful surprise as he relies on his guitarist-performer chops rather than his heartthrob lead singer persona. The other members of The Flash – Rick Rosas on bass, Joe Vitale on drums and Bernie Worrell on keyboards – are all accomplished players known for their experience on film sets.
Demme’s design team creates an authentic looking Salt Well, the fictional Tarzana dive bar where Ricki’s band hangs out. But so much screen time gets devoted to Meryl and The Flash playing live there, that the dive scene becomes, paradoxically, the obverse of what the filmmakers intend. The Salt Well starts to feel too slickly blocked and choreographed for any true salty-dog LA dive.
Initially, it’s impressive to see Streep channel her inner Bonnie Raitt but after what seems an eternity of cover tunes for all ages, her constant concert rubs the story thin. Instead of an uplifted finale, the whole show grinds to a coarse halt – with no encore.
Diablo Cody’s screenplay is peppered with delicious moments, including a “very small, very green” wedding where long-lost mother of the groom (Streep) wryly answers an in-law’s question: “Where did you meet the groom?” Answer: “C-section.”
Cody also concocts inspired locations like Total Foods where Ricki/Linda is a broke checkout clerk instructed to project gratitude-with-a-smile toward rude customers who couldn’t blink twice on their way to $447.74 grocery tabs with $250 cash back!
Demme’s ever-present personal touches percolate throughout: Judy Holliday touring D.C. in “Born Yesterday” on tv in the background. Meanwhile, his soundscape is impeccable, as amply evidenced by one delicious moment when Linda’s bipolar daughter Julie (Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer) storms off screen. Suddenly we hear Julie running upstairs to her room, in vivid Dolby multi-phonic precision, heard but unseen over our heads.
The film also includes one of Demme’s finest ever moments – a long, nuanced six-person dinner party in a restaurant refereed by Linda’s ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline). The scene plays out brilliantly, not for what is said but for what remains unstated, with other diners looming well within earshot. Here’s a director in full command of mies-en-scène, which allows him to simply show the story through the actors’ eyes.
Particularly beat-perfect is Klein, who again proves himself to be one of America’s finest male leads in this, his first turn in a Demme picture.
But overall, “Ricki and The Flash” is one bipolar picture suffering from indecision and too many sing-along songs which deflate the very heart of the matter – one lost mom’s funny and fragile effort to reconnect with her family.
I give “Ricki and The Flash” three out of five beavers.
Jamie Jobb is an author and videographer living in Martinez. His “Quoting Roy Jeans,” a comic documentary about Armando’s Music Hall, screened last year as a rough cut at the Martinez Campbell Theater. His videos can be found on YouTube and The Internet Archive.