She had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. She was the "Iron Lady". She has played grieving Australian moms raging at dingos, tormented Victorian heroines at the end of Lyme Regis harbour wall and concentration camp survivors, agonising over the fate of her children. Last Christmas, we saw her as a wicked witch with very long nails. In a few weeks, she will be back on screen as the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. There is no accent that is beyond her, no role too outlandish. That is why it seems barely a surprise that the 66-year-old Meryl Streep should be starring as a leather-clad pub rocker in Jonathan Demme's new film. This is Streep in Dr Feelgood mode.
As with almost all Streep's screen turns, audiences are likely to require a short acclimatisation period before they settle down to enjoy the film. What may appear at first glance as an exercise in Spitting Image-style chutzpah and mimicry eventually turns into a nuanced and moving performance. Streep also shows that if the roles do dry up, she has what it to takes to eke out a second career singing cover songs for tips in down-at-heel San Fernando bars.
The film itself is funny and toe-curling by turns, a comedy drama about a dysfunctional family whose older members, notably Streep, are always able to mortify their children. The fact that Streep's daughter, Mamie Gummer, appears alongside her only adds to the feelings of queasy embarrassment induced. The same elements that make you cringe are what gives the film its poignancy and humour.
"I am old, I am broke, I can't cook a decent meal, I am getting fat," Streep's Ricki Rendazzo wails in self-pity, summing up her plight accurately enough. Years before, she took the decision to walk out on her husband Pete (Kevin Kline), kids, and affluent, middle-class life to pursue her dream of becoming a rock star. She hasn't come anywhere near achieving fame or fortune. Her fate is to perform Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen songs every night in front of a bunch of old-timers and misfits in a tiny California bar. At least, they appreciate her. The Flash is the house band and its every set is greeted with wild enthusiasm.
Outside the bar, Ricki (as she calls herself in preference to her old civilian name Linda) is not so well regarded. She has a dead-end job as a cashier at a supermarket, earning $447 a week and frequently being told off for not smiling enough at her customers. She is in a relationship with the band's guitarist Greg (played by real-life rocker Rick Springfield) but gets very cross when he starts talking about love.
A world away in Indianapolis, Ricki's daughter Julie (Gummer) has been abandoned by her husband and is going through a breakdown. She has moved back into the family home, stopped washing and barely ventured out of her room in days. Ricki is summoned to help her. "You couldn't make it for the wedding but you're just in time for the divorce," is the daughter's sceptical, sardonic response when her mother turns up, seventh cavalry style, to rescue her. "I guess you've got to give up a lot of special things to become a rock star," is another sarcastic barb aimed at Streep by her neglected children.
The film, scripted by Diablo Cody, is peppered with caustic and often witty dialogue. Its actual story, though, is an exercise in high schmaltz. The nastier everyone is to each other, the more obvious it is that they love each other really. Ricki has abandoned her family to embrace the precarious life of the would-be rock star. Her kids have responded by becoming as conservative as she is bohemian. One son, Josh, is gay; the other, Adam, is about to get married. Both look at their mom as if she is from Mars. They don't even try to conceal their hostility and contempt toward her.
Almost a quarter of a century on from winning a Best Director Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, the director Jonathan Demme has spent much of his recent career making documentaries and music films. That is perhaps why the musical scenes here have such grit about them. Demme shoots Streep and Springfield on stage in the same way as he would Neil Young, a frequent subject of his docs. The melodrama, as Streep re-engages with her family, is handled in a more saccharine way. Kline clowns away in his genial everyman way as Streep's ex-husband, driven to distraction by her but still seemingly secretly in love with her. It is a role you could imagine Cary Grant playing in an earlier age – a long way removed from Kline's earlier collaboration with Streep on Sophie's Choice. Demme highlights the contrast between Streep's down-at-heel life as a rock singer and the affluence she encounters in Indianapolis. Having re-invented herself as a blue-collar rock singer, she has also become a patriot whose political views flummox her relatives. The irony is that Streep, even in her impoverished circumstances, has an independence that her children conspicuously lack.
The film ends with an extended wedding scene, shot in the same freewheeling, Robert Altman-like way as Demme's earlier Rachel Getting Married (2008). Yet Ricki and the Flash is only pretending to be an ensemble piece. It is an old-fashioned star vehicle in which the only character who really matters is the one on stage, belting out Rolling Stones songs. At times, you want to groan at the shameless manner in which Streep hijacks every scene in which she appears, outflanking Kline, Springfield and her daughter. Even in denim and braids, she is a diva, not a team player. The film, though, also reminds us just why she has been winning Oscars for so many years. Without Streep at its centre, this might have seemed a flimsy confection. But she plays the rock singer with the utter conviction and fearlessness that she brings to all her roles, however unlikely they seem. µReuse content