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Rock star Streep and the uphill battle for Hollywood diversity

Ricki and the Flash (PG). Director: Jonathan Demme. Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield. 101 minutes

There's kind of a running gag that in Hollywood there are very few roles for women over a certain age — unless you happen to be Meryl Streep. Of course it isn't really a joke, if you consider the consistently dire statistics regarding gender, age and race diversity in mainstream American films.

Whatever you make of this deplorable inequality, and whatever your views on the quality of Streep's own vast and varied career, there can be little doubt that she is an actor singularly dedicated to her craft, who works hard and throws herself with aplomb into the wide range of roles that come her way.

For her latest, as the ageing wannabe rock star Ricki, who is coming to terms with a lacklustre career and her patent failures as a mother to three now-adult children, Streep spent months learning to play guitar. It's an impressive feat that proves to be both a strength and weakness of Ricki and the Flash.

A weakness because director Jonathan Demme — an accomplished feature filmmaker who has also directed several classic concert films, notably Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense — chooses to make use of this newfound musical talent ad nauseum, often to the detriment of the story. 

And a strength, because two of the film's incessant musical digressions prove to be among its most effective sequences.

In one, Ricki strums a mournful song (penned for the film by singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice), 'Cold One', to her wealthy ex-husband (Kline) and their emotionally troubled daughter, Julie (Gummer, Streep's real-life daughter) after a night of belated, marijuana-assisted bonding.

Julie recently attempted suicide, which was the catalyst for Ricki returning to try to make amends with a family that has good cause to resent her. This premise gives rise to some predictably awkward fractured-family scenarios, that are lent bite and insight by Juno scribe Diablo Cody's screenplay.

In this context, Streep's heartfelt performance of 'Cold Ones' is quite moving, as it lays bare the real talent that underlies the character's misguided grandstanding, while providing a moment of emotional connection between mother and daughter. (Gummer, like her mother, is no slouch as an actor.)

In the other, too-rare purposeful musical sequence, lead guitarist and Ricki's would-be partner Greg (real-life rocker Springfield) displays a gesture of generosity to Ricki, moments before they launch into another corny cover song at the dive bar where the band is resident. The significance of the gesture dawns on Ricki over the course of the song, bringing at least a hint of emotional truth to the scene.

Springfield, while a consummate shredder, is not going to be winning any acting Oscars any time soon. But there is an artlessness to his performance that is genuinely sweet. Greg, like Ricki, is a man burdened by regrets, and it is within their shared brokenness that he and Ricki are able to connect.

In all honesty the film is probably not worth rushing out to buy a ticket to. But it has enough such solid 'moments' scattered throughout to make it worth a glance at home some time down the track. In the meantime, let the depressingly uphill battle to bring diversity to Hollywood endure with a vengeance.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Jonathan Demme



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