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Rocking a dream

/ 12:36 AM September 06, 2015

If a woman of a certain age ran off to California to pursue a rock star career, perhaps the matron’s version of running off to join the circus, would she grab at a chance for redemption?

Maybe only if she were like Ricki Rendazzo (Linda in her previous life), who gave her rock star dreams everything she had, only to end up playing nights at a small California club with a loyal but small following, and earning her keep by day as a cashier at an upscale food emporium.

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It isn’t exactly stardom but it’s clear, performing with her band rocks Ricki’s world. But when time comes to weigh the joys and dubious rewards of following her dreams, versus the sacrifices she and those she loves have had to pay, the equation becomes a bit more complicated.

The contrast and confrontation between the family black sheep and those she left behind have been a staple of family dramas. And in “Ricki and the Flash,” which will be shown exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas nationwide starting Wednesday, Sept. 9, all the stock characters make an appearance. There’s the kind, bemused ex-husband, the cool second wife, the troubled daughter, the remote older son, the resentful gay younger brother. Throw in the rocker boyfriend and you have the perfect recipe for a “TV-movie of the month.”

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Fortunately, there is Meryl Streep essaying the role of Ricki, sticking out in the midst of the pastel-and-polyester crowd in her old hometown in her all-black, leather-and-fringe outfits.

She could so easily have played her rocker-mother as broadly as possible—all-edge or all-remorse. But Streep, who once declared that every actor has an obligation to “stand up for your character,” gives us Ricki in all her complication and contradiction. She is lovable and loathsome, remorseful but also defiant. As a character, she is written (by writer Diablo Cody) with rather shallow insights into life. It is only Streep’s staunch championing of Ricki that keeps us paying attention.

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At one point in the movie, just back from a disastrous reunion in Indiana where she managed to alienate almost everyone in her family, Ricki stops mid-song to ruminate about the unfairness of life. Why is it, she wonders aloud, when a man leaves his comfort zone to fulfill his dreams, he is cheered on by most everybody, but when a woman and a mother does that, she is condemned as a “bad” parent who sacrificed her children to the altar of her dreams?

The trouble is that the end-result seems such a paltry reward for all that Ricki has given up, not least of which is her children’s own sense of happiness and security. She flies to Indiana to be by the side of her daughter Julie (played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), who is going through a personal crisis after her own divorce, only to find Julie resentful and suicidal. The sins of the past are further resurrected when Ricki meets with her sons Josh and Adam and Josh’s fiancée, when all the bitterness and sadness of the past bubbles to the surface. And when she meets the woman who raised her own children, the second wife of her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), the bitter truths about everything she had given up to chase her rock star dreams come raining down on Ricki.

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Of course a happy ending is called for, and it comes in a rather predictable manner. If only all dark family disputes were settled so easily!

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While “Ricki and the Flash” edges toward the darker bits of lost childhoods, reckless choices, selfish dreams—the dialogue all too often skitters away, avoiding confrontations in a movie that is supposed to be all about the clash between the sins of the past and the recriminations of the present.

The result is a film that continually circles the edges of darkness and despair but refuses ultimately to plunge into the pit of human weakness.

For one, I can’t imagine Ricki chasing her rock star dreams and mining the anger and angst that lie in the center of most of rock’s anthems, without even so much as a flirtation with drugs, booze and other temptations. The relationship between Ricki and her lead guitarist Greg (the authentic rocker Rick Springfield) is supposed to have been platonic for years, but the spark is lit only after Ricki comes home on the verge of despair after Indiana. Seems more like a sanitized version of rock romance retrofitted for a general audience.

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There is a bonus for the audience, though. And that is watching and listening to Streep and Springfield perform, “reading” Ricki interpret rock anthems even as she reflects on the things she had had to do, to do what she loves most in the world.

To play Ricki, we are told, Streep had to learn to play the guitar, and although she had already sung in previous movies, rock was never part of that repertoire. What an achievement it is, then, for Streep to credibly portray an aging rocker with not-bad moves. The performances, in fact, are the real highlights of “Ricki and the Flash” (especially a scintillating guitar solo by Springfield), and watching Streep step out so far from her acting comfort zone and still carry the day is a genuine joy.

So it is possible, it seems, to find redemption even after a life of debauchery and, let’s face it, self-indulgence. By all rights, by the conventions of family drama, Ricki should have been made to repent her sins. But instead, Ricki rocks, and in the very rocking, shows us that her dreams, despite the disappointments, were worth all the heartache.

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TAGS: Diablo Cody, dreams, Meryl Streep, Movies, Ricki and the Flash, Ricki Rendazzo
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