Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 2; Sex 8/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
But when he came to himself…
…give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
Let all that you do be done in love.
1 Corinthians 16:14
Meryl Streep is a delight as the Prodigal Mother whose stage name is Ricki Rendazzo, years earlier going by the married name of Linda Brummell.
As the film begins she is belting out a Tom Petty song along with her band The Flash. She has come a long way since she walked out on her family back in Indianapolis. Now living hand-to-mouth in Tarzana, California, during the day she clerks at a supermarket, and at night grinds out songs at the shabby bar where hers is the house band. You could surmise the era of their music by the advanced age of most of the patrons, both men and women looking like denizens of another era with their scraggly, graying hair. For the few slightly younger customers the band does insert a song later than the 80s. The band members show their age also, especially keyboardist Billy (Bernie Worrell), an African American so thin that it appears that his diet has consisted more of alcohol than solid food. Her lead guitarist and backup vocalist Greg (Rick Springfield) is also the boyfriend to whom she will not commit. Their usually playful banter during a set sometimes turns acerbic.
Years earlier the then-Linda had left her husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and three children to follow her dream of becoming a rock star. Now, even though she did not come close to super stardom (the band made one album), she is a more than competent musician, feeling really alive only in the midst of performing before her small group of fans. She thrives on their loudly expressed adoration, their shouts and applause often led by their number one fan tending bar.
Ricki returns to Indianapolis at the request of Pete because their daughter Julie (Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) has tried to take her life after suffering through a messy divorce. When Ricki arrives at his lavish home in a gated community she is so low on cash that he has to pay her cab fare. Julie, to whom she has spoken in years, is resentful of her presence, and Pete is a bit perplexed that she expects to stay at the house rather than at a hotel (which she could not afford). His present wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) is out of town tending to the needs of her father, so he relents and puts her up in one of the bedrooms.
There follows a series of events, among which are Pete’s attraction to her despite what she has done; back and forth bouts between Ricki and Julie; and a reunion with their two sons Adam (Nick Westrate) and Josh (Sebastian Stan) at restaurant that ends in a public meltdown. Josh is engaged to Emily (Hailey Gates), who immediately feels put off by Riki’s tight leather outfit, half-braided hairdo, and heavily applied mascara that she insists on wearing everywhere. Adam is gay, which Ricki, stuck in her anti-Obama Tea Party values (she wears a tattoo of a Tea party slogan), handles herself very poorly when she learns of this for the first time. (She has not been in touch with the boys either for many years!) There is an awkward tension that permeates their dinner because it is obvious that Josh had not planned to inform or invite her to the wedding. How this eventually works out, with Ricki arriving at a more fulfilling point in her life, including her relationship with Greg, makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. As a drama, its script by Oscar winner Diablo Cody, the film could have been improved a lot by developing further such scenes as Ricki’s encounter with Maureen, the step mother who has raised the three children. An African American, she surely would have clashed with Ricki on other than just motherhood issues during their brief encounter. Ricki is a strange case, her heart divided—she is enthralled by the music of her youth during the 60s and 70s, and yet her social values are of those conservatives of that era who opposed rock ‘n roll and its anti-establishment views. Had the film expanded this a bit, as well as with another scene or two with her sons, especially the gay Adam, the wonderful reconciliation scene that concludes with the singing of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down” would have been even more powerful. This song, with the oft-repeated lines of “ My love, love, love, love, love, love, will not let you down” certainly ends the film on a high note.
The cast is terrific, with Streep, as always, totally entering into her role. (There was a report that the filming was delayed a bit because Ms. Streep was learning to play the guitar. No faking it for her—and more than one critic has written that she could become an opening act for a big time band.) Reunited for the first time since Sophie’s Choice, Streep and Kline are wonderful together as the divorced couple still harboring feelings for each other. And her scenes with her daughter Mamie are heart-tugging, as her Ricki/Linda tries, not to apologize for chasing her dream and thus abandoning her girl, but to re-establish contact as adults. One of the interesting questions raised in the film is our societal sexism which makes a guitar hero of a Mick Jagger, scarcely scarcely questioning the loose ties with his families (he’s been a father seven times with four different women), but brands a mother who follows a similar arc as a terrible person.
Great scene for teachers/preachers: Ricki, after flying back from Indianapolis to her cheap apartment, dives into performing, but cannot get over her depression and sense of failure as a mother, despite the warm welcome back her small coterie of fans offer up. She has decided, despite Greg’s urging that she attend, to stay away from her son’s wedding. Greg, who has stayed with her through the years despite some of her put downs and her refusal to commit to marriage, gives her some sound advice about children, so well put that I was reminded of the poem “On Children” in the new film Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. “It’s not our kids’ job to love us,” Greg tells her, “It’s our job to love them. We’re their parents.” These become freeing words for her, we see, in the film’s last sequence when she returns and presents the only, as well as the best, gift she can give to the bride and groom. Even the means by which she is able to afford to return, marks Greg as an agent of grace.
Director Jonathan Demme, who has directed numerous concert films (including the labor of love documentaries about Neil Young), shows us what makes an aging rocker tick, on and off stage. Ricki’s emergence at last as a mature, caring adult and an artist so dedicated to her music that she keeps at it, even when it does not bring her fame and wealth, is well worth watching. The film, as critics are quick to state, might not be great, but the performances of the cast are certainly top notch. Indeed, when has Meryl Streep ever given us less than her best?
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September VP