Ricki and the Flash

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As a bit of pre-Thanksgiving viewing, this was not a bad choice. Dysfunctional families overcoming their problems is a tradition on screen and in life over the big holidays. This is a fairly entertaining distraction led by a strong cast.

The lead singer, literally and figuratively, is Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, Hope Springs), who proves again she has singing chops. As a might-have-been rock singer fronting an out-of-date cover band, she embraces the role of absent mother trying to heal the rifts she left in her wake while pursuing her dreams.

Her story revolves around her lead guitarist, inspiringly filled by Rick Springfield, who lends The Flash band serious credibility on stage, and Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer (Cake) playing her screen daughter. It isn’t an easy set of relationships, but Streep brings out both her character’s insecurities as well as her strengths in a fun and subtle dance.

As her ex, Kevin Kline (My Old Lady) isn’t quite as nuanced. And, despite a couple strong scenes together, you never really understand how the two were together long enough to have 3 kids. The gifted Audra McDonald, as Kline’s current wife, frankly felt like a forced choice, though she was comfortable in her role and works well with Kline and the rest of the cast.

Demme (A Master Builder) directs the story well, never quite allowing it to drop into a syrupy mess nor avoiding some of the darker aspects of Streep’s Ricki in character or situation. Even with that taste of reality, he still manages to instill a sense of hope and dreams, even triumph. You don’t leave the story thinking everything is solved, but there is a potential path.

One thing done very right is that the film is loaded with performances by the titular band. The songs are selected with care and the evidence of the band’s abilities and lacks is necessary for the story to resonate well. This band is like a million other bar bands out there: musicians who are competent, but not brilliant; who scrape by but are never likely to be discovered, but they keep on keeping on in hope and because it is all they know. Demme managed to create a sort of live action Nighthawks feel, or a less dark version of the atmosphere of Begin Again in his bar scenes. It underpins both the resilience and the likely pointlessness of Ricki and her band without letting you lose your respect for their willingness and need to try.

Ricki and the Flash is a window into all families, admittedly taken to extremes. It is what made it a good choice the night before Thanksgiving, though I didn’t plan it that way. It works with or without the proximity of a major holiday, but it definitely added some interesting spice for me viewing it when I did.

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