Meryl Streep rocks as a guitar-shredding mama in “Ricki and the Flash”.
I almost fell off my chair when I realized she’s belting out all the songs – Lady Gaga, Pink and Dobie Gray, plus an original, “Cold One”. Live! No lame lip synching here, no fake guitar strumming or phoney playback.
I mean, sure, the acting, the script and the direction’s great. But hell, the music was the film’s coolest yet.
“The Flash became a real band. Everything you see and hear is the real deal. With this kind of character-driven film, we’ve to make people feel like it’s real,” Director Jonathan Demme stressed.
In fact, he insisted on live music. “The customary thing is, the band pretends to perform, you overlay a previously recorded perfect track. It’s easier. But I didn’t want that. I wanted this great band, with Meryl at the center, to really go out there and play.”
But I’ve forgotten that Meryl, Hollywood’s most acclaimed actress, also happens to be a vocalist with musicals like Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods to heavy dramas like Silkwood, to her credit.
She starred as Alice in the musical of Alice in Wonderland for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Playing a former singer in Silkwood, she even cradled Cher and sang a lullaby to her.
In Mamma Mia! she was the lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos in sequined bodysuit, performing classic songs, such as “Super Trouper” and “The Winner Takes It All”, which she recorded in one take.
And of course, she was the singing Witch in one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written, Stephen Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods.
As band leader Ricki Rendazzo (aka Linda Brummell), she brought it off fabulously as a platform-heeled, leather-jacketed, bangle-jiggling, aging rocker. She trained hard for months to be a killer on the strings, however.
“I started learning on an acoustic guitar and then moved to the electric guitar. I worked every day with this genius teacher who put the Telecaster in my hands and taught me a lot of little tricks that rock ‘n’ rollers use, bar chords, quick changes, stuff like that.”
The electric guitar was easier to play “But your mistakes are much louder. With an acoustic, you get away with it. With an electric, you have to be committed to that bad note because it’s ringing through the hall! It was such a lot of fun.”
“Meryl’s a research beast. I never doubted she’d become an excellent rhythm guitar player,” the director maintained. “She works as hard in the months leading up to a movie as she does when shooting it.”
As Ricki, Meryl surprisingly held her own against Rick Springfield, the legendary 1980’s rock and roll star with 25 million records and 17 top hits to his name. He played her lead guitarist – lover, Greg.
Asked about his greatest challenge in fleshing out the character, the rocker, who’s been touring the international circuit for over 30 years, quipped, “Not constantly going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Meryl Streep!’”
Jesting aside, it was hard for the rock musician, who’s used to having the spotlight to himself, to defer to Ricki – the leader of The Flash. “I’m a bit of a show-boater, so to play the support role, I modelled it off a friend of mine who actually has that relationship with his wife onstage.”
“The part of Greg is definitely dual-purpose,” the director added. “We need an actor capable of going toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep who’s also an authentic shredder. I was worried about finding a great Greg. And then Rick Springfield came in, we meet him, he’s very nice – and then he plugs in and he’s amazing.”
“Greg’s a good guitar player who never really made it,” was how Rick interpreted his role. “He had a brush with success that never went anywhere. But he loves to play and has been in love with Ricki for a while. He’s frustrated by her noncommittal, casual attitude to their relationship but he loves playing music with her. They share that passion.”
Ricki’s band, The Flash, had three legendary sidemen to boot – Bernie Worrell on the keyboards, bass player Rick Rosas and drummer Joe Vitale. “They’re all great musicians. Everyone knew what they were doing. And it was exciting to see how incredibly dedicated Meryl was – it’s difficult to play an instrument you’ve never played before and singing – it’s really hard. We got together and rehearsed for two weeks and hung out at lunch and asked, what would it be like if we’re really a band? Let’s jam six years into two weeks and see if we can make it fly.”
That kind of challenge would have given a lesser actress the heart attack, but Meryl took it in stride.
“It didn’t seem like enough time, but those guys were great,” she stressed. “They were very gentle with me and forgiving. I really couldn’t keep up with them. Then, around the sixth day, we hit a groove and then we couldn’t stop playing. I get why Ricki wanted never to give that up, because it’s so much fun.”
But the rehearsals were so intense the band barred all outsiders – the director included – from their sessions.
“That’s fair,” Jonathan guffawed. “When I showed up three weeks in, I entered the little room where they’re playing, they were up on the bandstand and Meryl Streep was right in the middle of it, looking like she’d been doing it all her life.”
Yet it wasn’t easy. “Originally, Jonathan said, ‘Three songs. You’re going to have two weeks of rehearsal and three songs, tops!’” Meryl recounted. “Well, there are ten songs in the movie – ten! – and that’s hard.”
The most powerful song that Ricki performs is an original – “Cold One”, written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice specifically for Ricki.
Jenny identified deeply with the troubled mother-daughter relationship in the film. Being herself the daughter of musicians, she often felt she placed second to her mother’s musical pursuits as a child.
Meryl heard Rick play the song as she prepared to do the same. “We were in a dollar store and he was in one of the dressing rooms, playing around, and it was just so beautiful. But I was going to have to play it acoustically in the movie!”
Though Meryl admits she isn’t quite at Rick’s level with the guitar, “I found a way of playing the character that was fitting at the moment, like booming the guitar – you play the chords and pound the strings and it’s rhythmic, you hear the chord change. It works because she’s playing in an intimate scene for her family but she’s not committing to playing it. This is a song that was supposed to be her breakthrough into rock ‘n’ roll stardom but nobody picked up on it. She’s playing it and not playing it – she’s uncertain about her work.”
Kevin Kline, who plays her ex-husband Pete Brummel, is also a talented musician. “He came up to me on the first day we were playing in the club and said, ‘You don’t sound bad.’ I thought that was the highest compliment.”
“Kevin’s really funny but he also carries drama at the same time,” notes producer Marc Platt.
“His character is complicated like his relationship with Ricki. On that level alone, I thought he’d be a great for that role. But given that he and Meryl have a history between them on screen and they’re friends off-screen, I thought it would serve the storytelling very well. There’s so much unsaid between Ricki and Pete. So, he was the first person I suggested to Meryl when I first gave her the script.”
Ricki was born in the mind of Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. “My mother-in-law, Terry, the lead singer in a Jersey Shore rock band called Silk and Steel, inspired her character,” she disclosed.
“Terry’s a grandmother of six, still up there rocking out every weekend, walking on the bar, electrifying the audience. Rock ‘n’ roll is her life. People thought it’s silly for a mom or grandma to do – and she doesn’t give a damn. I love that about her.”
In London, while making Into the Woods with Meryl, Marc asked her to read the script. “I’ve known her for years. Knowing her love of musical performance, I thought she’d want to play Ricki. She came back a few weeks later and said she loved it. The rest was easy.”
In the same way, Marc thought the movie would be perfect for Jonathan’s directorial skills.
“He’s brilliant with female actresses and roles. He’s made some of the great films with music groups – he lived in the world of rock. The texture of his films is all about diversity and tolerance, different people finding a life together. So, when he called and told me he has to direct this movie, it was music to my ears, but not a surprise.”
True genetics further added a rare, if not eerie reality and higher potency to the dramatic comedy which for the first time paired Meryl with her real-life actress daughter, Mamie Gummer, as Ricki’s daughter Julie.
However, part of the director’s job was to try to put a wedge between Julie and her mother.
So, all along, Jonathan kept telling Mamie, “That’s not your mom. That’s not Meryl Streep. This is a whole other mother we’re dealing with. And let’s give her a very tough ride because she deserves it.’”
To make the alienation between their two characters feel authentic, the director insisted that mom and daughter, who are extremely close in real life, don’t talk offscreen while they’re shooting. It worked. Their estrangement on film proved as convincing as their physical resemblance.
“Mamie is very dramatic, has always has been, from age three – or maybe three months – so we’ve been acting together for a long time,” Meryl laughed.
“I’m so in awe of her and her willingness to go barebones at it. It’s tough to come into our business, with a mother who’s so prominent in Hollywood. But kids have a unique vision of their parents, which is not really to put them on a pedestal. So, finding a way to be mad at me, manufacture rage – no problem.”
Nevertheless, acting against one of cinema’s most renowned actresses, who also happens to be your mother, was a demanding experience for Mamie.
“It was more challenging than I anticipated, but also rewarding and rich. It was tricky, fun, enlightening, empowering – every human emotion came into play. She’s the person I’m intrinsically connected to. So, examining that bond, taking it apart and putting it back together every day was intense.”
One reason for the distance between the mother and daughter characters is they’re so alike. “They’re quick to rise to a fight,” Meryl observed. “They see things as outsiders and as truth tellers. The apple doesn’t fall far. They both live with no apologies.”
Strangely, impersonating Ricki, the mother of three who abandoned her children to pursue rock ‘n’ roll stardom, someone who doesn’t act how everybody thinks she should be, gave Meryl immense relief.
“The role’s not tied up in a bow – it feels like real people with real, complicated, bumpy, messy dilemmas. We all have to live with our mistakes. Ricki wishes her kids liked her more, understood her, but she’s pretty clear-eyed about it. She lives in the moment, acts on impulses imperative to her. It ends up being funny but it’s heartbreaking, too.”
In the film, Ricki flies from her home in Los Angeles to Indiana to be with daughter Julie. Ex-husband Pete summoned her after Julie almost killed herself when her husband left her for another woman. Pete’s second wife, Maureen, played by Audra McDonald, was away with her sick dad. When Ricki sees Julie in desperate straits, she attempts to make amends for her past bad choices.
“Julie was so committed to not being her mother. She intended to be a stay-at-home mom, to devote her life to her family and be the kind of mother Ricki never was to her. So when it all blows up, she doesn’t know who she is or what her purpose is,” Mamie expounded.
“While Ricki has always loved Julie, she’s paralyzed by guilt over what she’s done, afraid to reach out. After Julie attempted suicide, she finally has an opportunity – suddenly Ricki is not the troubled person in the family. She can come in and say, from experience, that it gets better and it’ll be okay.”
The way Mamie brings Julie to life was “shocking, hilarious, heartbreaking and unpredictable” Jonathan described. “She just slays it beyond belief.”
The other mother in the story, Maureen Brummell, was the exact opposite of Ricki – perfect stepmom, wife and daughter – a loving person who’s also a bad ass when she has to be. Maureen staunchly believes she put the Brummell family back together after Ricki left Pete, so she’s very protective of her world.
The inevitable confrontation between Audra and Meryl resembled The Gunfight at the OK Corral. Audra says there’s nothing quite like verbally dueling with Meryl Streep in a scene. “She makes you feel like you’re an amazing actress because you’re standing next to her. You feel like you’ve been blessed by the gods.”
After all is said and done, “Ricki Rendazzo is definitely a Meryl Streep we’ve never seen before,” Jonathan maintained.
Audiences have watched the 66-year old star for over four decades, from the theater through film and television, reaping awards galore.
“Meryl bought to life famous figures, terrifying ones, extreme characters. In this film, Ricki has her extremes but Meryl plays it down-to-earth – an authentic, singing guitar player, a real twenty-first century woman.”
What I can say is, I do want more of her as a singer.
She can sing all the way to another Oscar yet!
(“Ricki and the Flash” will be shown exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas nationwide starting this Wednesday, September 9. 2015.)
TriStar Pictures presents “Ricki and the Flash” in association with LStar Capital, a Marc Platt / Badwill Entertainment production, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan and Rick Springfield. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Produced by Marc Platt, Diablo Cody, Mason Novick, and Gary Goetzman. Written by Diablo Cody. Executive Producers are Ron Bozman, Adam Siegel, Lorene Scafaria, and Ben Waisbren. Director of Photography is Declan Quinn, ASC. Production Designer is Stuart Wurtzel. Edited by Wyatt Smith, ACE. Costume Designer is Ann Roth.