When screenwriter and director Diablo Cody first met her mother-in-law, she didn’t expect to meet a rock and roll queen. “I went to see her band play,” Cody says of her husband’s mother, who plays in a Jersey Shore rock band. “She was up on stage singing AC/DC, kicking ass, jumping up on onto the bar. She owned the room. I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
What was fascinating for Cody, though, was par for the course for her husband’s family. “She’s been playing for my husband’s entire childhood. They didn’t see anything extraordinary about it.”
But Cody saw movie potential, and so she turned the aging mommy rock star into Ricki and the Flash. Unlike Cody’s mother-in-law, however, Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) is dysfunctional – she left behind her family to pursue a music career, and now bags groceries for a living, playing covers at a local bar.
That may sound depressing on paper, but Ricki is far from morose – she’s a hilarious and spunky fiftysomething who loves her life and doesn’t shy away from her heavy-eyeliner and leather-clad self-expression – and the film is not interested in condemning its protagonist.
Instead, Ricki is about a woman who owns up to her mistakes while defending her right to pursue a passion. It’s a messy redemption arc, one that finds Ricki reuniting with her family once her children start facing their own adult problems. This includes the attempted suicide of her daughter Julie, played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer. And therein lies the tricky balance for Cody in making Ricki an empathetic, empowering character, despite all the flaws.
“I feel a lot of sympathy toward her,” Cody says in an interview. “At the same time, I can understand she made a pretty drastic decision by moving away from her family to try to become a rock star.”
Cody, perhaps best known for her Juno and Young Adult screenplays, admits that her new script is, in many ways, a projection of her own anxieties as a mother. “Could this be my future?” she asks. “Are my kids going to forgive me for the time I spent away from them because I was passionate about writing movies, or are they going to appreciate it?”
Women are routinely and unfairly pressured to stick around for their families, putting aside their careers to rear children. The term “deadbeat mom” doesn’t exist for a reason, as women like Ricki are a rare species. Although the film doesn’t quite openly criticize this gendered double standard, it’s the kind of question that rises in the viewer’s mind organically as he or she tries to make sense of Ricki’s life choices.
“I want people to feel for her,” Cody says. “I hope that happens, but sometimes I wonder, ‘Are we even at a place where people can forgive a female character?’”
If anyone could make a character this affable, it’s Streep. Unsurprisingly, the actress made Herculean efforts in creating Ricki’s character, learning guitar in six months to perform alongside seasoned musicians in the film. Her performance is phenomenal, especially given the fact that director Jonathan Demme insisted on recording the songs during the shoot with no postproduction cleanup.
“I know it must have been crazy for her,” says Cody, who was ecstatic upon learning Streep had signed on. “She had to learn a totally new skill set playing with professional musicians, and then also had her daughter on-set. I can’t imagine that it wasn’t an intense experience.”
Cody had Demme in mind when writing the script, because of his background in directing music videos and documentaries (such as his influential Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense). His talent in capturing the raw energy of live performances – one closes the film with a bang – shines through in Ricki, resulting in some longer-than-usual scenes that let the viewer revel in the moment. It’s a confident, if atypical, artistic choice for an American movie, but it gels well with Cody’s scripted female empowerment. “[Demme] wanted some of the dynamic to be expressed through the songs and he wasn’t going to hurry those moments,” Cody explains.
The film’s strong emphasis on musical performance may be why Demme was insistent on casting a guitarist instead of an actor for Ricki’s on-again, off-again lover and band member, Greg. Cody says the crew was blown away when Rick Springfield read for the part. Given the musician’s other recent acting work, including a villainous doctor on HBO’s True Detective, Cody is hopeful that her film will lead the dawning of the “Springfield acting renaissance.”
Given the all-star crew, Cody says she was excited when the production started to come together, despite tempering her expectations. “I’m so cautious at this point because this is such a weird, volatile business to be in,” she says. “I just hope people see it. It’s scary to be in the business of writing movies for adults these days.”