Meryl Streep's New Film, 'Ricki and the Flash,' Is Wonderful and Bizarre!

all photos from Sony

As a film critic, I'm supposed to be objective and not let my personal feelings interfere with my analysis of a new movie. For the most part I can do that... I'm not a Tom Cruise fan but praised his new Mission Impossible, and I'm a fanatical Woody Allen fan but managed to pan somewhat his current film, Irrational Man. But all rules are off when it comes to Meryl Streep. The world's best actress, as acknowledged by most, she can do no wrong in my eyes. Yes, she has made some films which were less than stalwart but even then her performances were worthy of note. I noted that Woody Allen's current film is his 45th, and now I can reveal that RICKI AND THE FLASH is Meryl's 42nd movie! She even appeared with Woody in one of his best, Manhattan, in 1979 playing his lesbian ex-wife in a few choice scenes. In an interview with me some years ago, she said that she grew up in New Jersey, went to Vassar, and graduated from the Yale Drama School with an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in 1975 at the age of 26, after working her way through school with waitressing and secretarial jobs. ("I hated every minute of them.") I wrote my first story about her then, the tragic love affair with cancer-stricken actor John Cazale, with whom she appeared in The Deer Hunter. Within a year she had won a Tony Award on Broadway, got her first feature film role within two years, and won her first Oscar in three years. In 1982, at the age of 33, she hit the heights of stardom and achievement with the incomparable Sophie's Choice. Co-starring with Kevin in his first screen role, she won the second of her three Oscars for this. (The others were for Kramer vs Kramer and The Iron Lady.)

Rick and Meryl in character playing in a band in the Valley.

Yet I was puzzled by her choice of roles in the current film, Ricki and The Flash, which opened on Friday. My lovely ex said that she was even surprised I was going to see it on opening day...."It sounds so... strange." I sensed that Sony Pictures was hesitant about going all-out on its promotion... minor TV spots and smaller ads. (It's the first Tom Rothman TriStar film to be released since he took over the whole Sony Pictures production schedule.) Some early reviews were even less than enthusiastic... but I went to see it with an open mind and high expectations. (Incidentally, I viewed it at the new iPIC Theatre on Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, a sensational venue. Paid $18 for a plush Premium Plus seat, had a waiter take my order for a cheeseburger and a gin-and-tonic, and they gave me a free bagof warm salted popcorn. All the food there -- lobster rolls, fish tacos. New York pizzas, supervised by former Spago chef Sherry Yard. Very comfortable, worth the extra money, spoiled me for other venues.)

I was blown away by the film. It's unlike anything else out there, so real, so vulnerable, so... interesting. By now you may know that the 66-year old Meryl plays a wife and mother who left her home and family in Indianapolis to go to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune as a rock 'n roll singer under the name of Ricki Rendazzo (a long way from her real name of Linda Brummell.) But the spark never happened, she is struggling with small gigs in a San Fernando Valley/Tarzana bar with her four-piece band while working as a checker at a Whole Foods-like supermarket. A family emergency calls her back... her ex-husband, played stolidly by Kevin Kline, informs her that their daughter (played terrifically by Streep's real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) attempted suicide after suffering a terrible depression from the breakup of her marriage (a cheating husband)... and he thinks she needs her mother. So Ricki shows up, with her smokey blue mascara, half-corn-rowed hair and braid in leather garb..and the daughter sarcastically asks her, "Do you have a gig tonight... or do you always dress like a hooker from Night Court?" It gets better from there. The spitfire dialogue from 37-year old screenwriter Diablo Cody (don't you just love that name, Diablo?) is sharp, witty, cutting and yes, poignant. I have been a fan of Cody's ever since she stunned us all with "Juno" in 2007 and won an Oscar for it. (I asked her once where she plucked the name Diablo and she smilingly told me that it came from the song, El Diablo, by Arcadia.) She told Amy Kaufman in the Los Angeles Times that this story came from her 61-year old mother-in-law who is the front-woman for a Jersey shore rock band. My brother, who follows these things, told me that she is currently writing a live-action "Barbie" movie. Years ago I knew one of the producers, Marc Platt, when he was a studio exec, and Production Designer Stuart Wurtzel did a movie of mine in New York many years ago. Her two sons are played by Sebastian Stern and Ben Platt, one of whom is gay in the film. Mason Novick, another producer, discovered Cody. Ann Roth did the costumes, Wytt Smith edited, and Declan Quinn was the magnificent cinematographer.

Mamie Gummer plays and is her daughter; here with Meryl and Rick.

Jonathan Demme is the legendary director of the film.

Then there's the fact that the director is Jonathan Demme, a true genius ("Silence of the Lambs" for one) and you have a volatile mix which explodes on the screen in such an unexpected fashion that I was actually reeling when I exited the theatre on Friday night. We've all read that Streep took guitar lessons from co-star Rick Springfield, who plays her on-screen band member and lover, and she looks authentic. Rick said in a recent interview that he taught her five or six chords on a 1968 Fender Telecaster and she was an apt student. You may recall that I was the first critic in America to review the Stephen Sondheim-created film, "Into the Night," in which Meryl plays the wild witch-who-sings. And sings....powerfully and well. As she did in "Prairie Home Companion" and "Mama, Mia." Well, wait 'til you hear Streep sing the Lady Gaga song, Bad Romance." Enthralling...her husky, hushed voice and confident-yet-hesitant manner had me teared up.

Meryl as Ricki.

My Huffington reader may also recall that I have written extensively about the magnificent actress-singer, Audra MacDonald, who recently portrayed singer Billie Holiday off-Broadway. (Naturally of great interest to me as the producer of "Lady Sings The Blues," the Diana Ross version of the singer's life.) Here, Audra appears as the stepmother to Ricki's kids. Her not-so-silent condemnation of Ricki is overwhelming, and Meryl has to undergo a crisis of faith as she fights back to reassure herself she was right to follow her dreams to La-La land. The knife-in-the-guts emotional attack is a brutal hurtful humiliation as an absentee powerful. But please know that Cody doesn't neglect the intense humor of the human condition. There are moments of laugh-out-loud fun and knowing smiles all through it. Imagine: she has Streep's character adorned by an American flag tattoo on her back and voting Republlcan."I voted twice for George Bush."

Meryl in another scene.

Demme directed one of the best concert movies ever, the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, and here he does the musical numbers just right, recorded the ten numbers live and dynamically shot by cinematographer Decal Quinn. They (Meryl and Rick) croon covers of Tom Petty's "American Girl" and "Get the Party Started" by Pink. And a Bruce Springsteen number, Keep Playing that Rock 'n Roll.. There's a fine original, Cold Ones, written by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice. Priceless.

Ricki and the Flash is a unique adult drama-with-music which stands in stark contrast to most of this summer's fare. It's a film to which you should take your loved one, your mother or grandmother, and your teen-age kids. Or, in my case, all of my Huffington readers.

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