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'Ricki and the Flash' review: Meryl Streep's rocker mama a vaguely sketched character in a scattershot story

Ricki (Meryl Streep) and Greg (Rick Springfield) star

Ricki (Meryl Streep) and Greg (Rick Springfield) star in TriStar Pictures' "Ricki and the Flash," a comedy-drama film directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Diablo Cody, about a woman who left her family to become a rock star, and later gets a chance to get everything back where it was. Credit: Bob Vergara

In the 2009 drama "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges played Bad Blake, a washed-up country star trying to reconnect with the grown son he last saw as a 4-year-old. When Blake's apologetic phone call is terminated by an abrupt click, our hearts go out to him. Bridges won an Oscar for the role.

Would we have been so sympathetic if Blake were a mother? That's the double standard raised by "Ricki and the Flash," starring Meryl Streep as Ricki Randazzo, a rocker who abandoned three children for her career. Roughly 25 years later, Ricki is playing in a dive bar in Tarzana, California, when her ex, Pete (Kevin Kline), calls with bad news. Their daughter, Julie, is going through a divorce and needs support. The question is, will Julie (Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) allow Ricki to be her mother again?

She might, but moviegoers might not. Ricki is initially an endearing figure, the die-hard rocker whose stage-ready smile hides a wounded heart. There's pleasure in watching Streep, in high heels and black leather, front a fictional band called the Flash, whose members are real musicians (including Rick Springfield in a moving turn). Director Jonathan Demme, who made the Talking Heads concert classic "Stop Making Sense," nicely captures the band's comfortable vibe as they play chestnuts like Tom Petty's "American Girl."

The more we know of Ricki, though, the less we like her. She's slightly racist (her anti-Obama jokes are jarring), openly homophobic (her gay son is played by Nick Westrate) and extremely self-pitying. In the film's crucial scene -- a thesis of sorts, from screenwriter Diablo Cody ("Juno") -- Ricki notes that Mick Jagger tours the world while others raise his children, but any woman who misses "one P.T.A. meeting" is suddenly labeled a monster.

True, but Ricki has clearly missed more than one meeting. Looking at the mental state of Julie, a snarling train wreck overplayed by Gummer, it's hard not to blame Ricki. "Ricki and the Flash" feels like a noble experiment -- a challenge to our traditional notions of motherhood -- undermined by vaguely sketched characters and a scattershot story. The sad fact is Ricki has little to offer her now-grown children. The movie, though, can't bear to admit it.




Meryl Streep isn't the first performer to indulge her inner rock star on film. Here are four other performers who got caught between rock and a hard place.

THE ROSE (1979) -- Bette Midler starred as a self-destructive rock star in this drama that was originally intended to be a biopic of Janis Joplin. Midler earned a best actress Oscar nomination and a Grammy for the title song.

ROCK STAR (2001) -- Though he started his career as a rapper, Mark Wahlberg went the rock star route in this comedy about the lead singer of a heavy metal tribute band who becomes front man of the actual group.

THE ROCKER (2008) -- Rainn Wilson took a break from TV's "The Office" to headline this big-screen laugher about a failed drummer in an '80s hair band who gets a second shot at stardom playing with his nephew's rock group. Loosely based on the story of Pete Best, the Beatles' original drummer, who made a cameo in the film.

GET HIM TO THE GREEK (2010) -- In this "Hangover"-esque romp, outrageous comedian Russell Brand played an outrageous rock star who makes life miserable for the square dude (Jonah Hill) who has to keep him on the wagon. Of course, the movie wouldn't be funny if he fully succeeded. --Daniel Bubbeo

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