“Mick Jagger has seven kids by four mothers,” singer and guitarist Ricki (Meryl Streep) declares from the stage at the halfway point of the Jonathan Demme-directed, Diablo Cody-written Ricki and the Flash. But Ricki isn’t celebrating Jagger’s accomplishment, rather pointing out that even though he’s a rotten father, everyone gives him a “because,” she explains bitterly, “he’s a man.” Guys are supposed to be virile ramblers, chasing their dreams and leaving the women behind to clean up their messes and change the diapers. But let mom miss a single birthday party for a gig and suddenly she’s “a monster!”
Ricki’s analysis has the ring of truth—not least because she’s describing, in part, the sexist dynamic of the movie she’s in. Ricki and the Flash is built around the man-bites-dog incongruity of a mom who’s a (wannabe) rock star. Ricki left her husband and three kids in Indianapolis to pursue a singing career in California. Years later, her daughter Julie’s marriage disintegrates, and Ricki (neé Linda) comes back to help her with her depression.
A dad who left home and barely knows his kids? That’s a story we’ve seen before. Dads are supposed to be socially incompetent and emotionally distant; they’re supposed to wear the biker jacket to their kids’ wedding. But a mom who does the same is still relatively uncommon in Hollywood. Moms are supposed to cook and clean and love their kids; not sell their souls to rock and roll. So when they do, it’s incongruous, weird, and, from the film’s viewpoint, a little amusing.
Unlike, say, Kevin Costner’s role as a super spy but hapless dad in last year’s 3 Days to Kill, Ricki’s abandonment of her family has not lead to fame, fortune, or even much skill. She’s an impoverished failure, working days as a grocery clerk and performing in the house band of a small bar for sparse, aging crowds. When she goes home see her family, she can’t even afford a cab or a hotel; she’s broke, ridiculous, and pitiful. Moms, as Ricki says, don’t get to be Mick Jagger.
If they don’t get to be Mick Jagger, though, they might get to be Meryl Streep. The film heaps indignities on Ricki—but she’s also the heart and soul of the film. And while she may be playing in a nowhere dive—with a voice that isn’t exactly rock star quality—she’s still being played by Meryl Streep on the big screen. No dive bar in the world could suppress Streep’s charisma or glamour. The film gets mileage from the fact that moms can’t be rock stars, but it also features a mom who’s a bona fide star. (That meta-level is surely intended; Julie is played by Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter.)
The film, then, capitalizes on the incongruity of a mom being a rock star—but it’s also more than a little in love with the idea of mom being a rock star. It knows it’s not fair that women can’t be Mick Jagger, and it wants to challenge that.
It does this in part by casting Streep. But it also goes to great lengths to reveal that Ricki, despite her failings, can actually be a good mother. She flies in when her daughter needs her—and then uses her fading cool rock swagger to be a better mom. She takes her daughter’s ex-husband’s credit card and gets the girl a rock and roll makeover. She serenades her with one of her own songs.
The narrative of the rambling, irresponsible rock star is flipped on its head, not just by Ricki but also by her lead guitarist and sort-of-boyfriend Greg (played by Rick Springfield). Greg is an estranged parent too. In a remarkable, awkwardly impassioned speech, Greg insists that though he cheated and destroyed his marriage, “I love my kids so much!” Later he pawns his guitar so the woman he cares about can go to her son’s wedding. Hot licks bring families together.
“I’m a musician; that’s all I am,” Ricki announces near the end of the film. But that’s actually not really true. Instead, Ricki’s identity is part of what brings the family back together. In the end, the film insists that there’s no contradiction between domesticity and biker jackets. As a mom, Ricki rocks.