There are 749 people who have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Under 70 of those inductees are women. Of those women, at least 20 chose to be childless. A majority of the others waited to have children after their careers had peaked or adopted later in life like Ann Wilson and Linda Ronstadt, or put their careers on hold for parenthood like Patti Smith and Darlene Love or gave children up for adoption like Joni Mitchell or to be raised by relatives like Aretha Franklin. A few had children with band mates like Michelle Phillips, Grace Slick or Agnetha Fältskog necessitating their children became part of the musical package. Some, like Donna Summer, left the business entirely to parent. Of all those (yet too few) names, only Madonna and Diana Ross seemed to have been powerful and enough to have kids in their prime and still do exactly what they wanted to musically. So where exactly does motherhood fit in the Rock & Roll narrative?
Writer Diablo Cody and Director Jonathan Demme explore that question in their latest work Ricki and the Flash starring Meryl Streep in the title role. The wayward musician father who chose life on the road to life over their parental obligations is a trope often seen in works of pop culture (think Dennis Leary in his new series Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.) You’ve seen him before- He’s troubled but charming, usually broke and a bit broken, but not ever really deemed “a bad guy” ( though his actions speak differently) and his acceptable excuse is always that he just didn’t fit the “dad” mold. The “mother” musician who makes that choice is a character less explored. The only one I could think of off the top of my head is the mother of TV character Blossom, whose absence was explained by a move to France (!?) to pursue music. When we think of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two musician/drug addicts who bred -one has been cast a sinner and the other deemed a saint- it easy to see how gender and motherhood skew the conversation. As Ricki points out “Mick Jagger has 7 kids with 4 women and he didn’t raise any of them.” But he still, of course, gets to be MICK JAGGER.
Ricki, however, isn’t even close to that echelon of fame. She plays nights in suburban LA cover band while checking groceries at a Whole Food style market where customers often spend the equivalent of her salary (with a couple hundred cash back) on a single shopping trip by day. She’s “hooking up” with her guitar player Greg (played by Rick Springfield) and existing on the show buzz she gets playing live and her employee discounted lunches when she gets the call the family she left in the Midwest many moons ago to pursue music is in crisis.
Diablo Cody is in her element here doing what she does best- creating perfectly imperfect female characters. Ricki may have changed her name and adopted her own edgy look and ethos, but she’s a conservative Republican, who having lost a brother in Vietnam feels indebted to support the troops. She has her guitarist’s heart but refuses to acknowledge their relationship “publicly” even if publicly is 50 drunk regulars in a bar on a Tuesday. She feels unworthy of love because she couldn’t fit the role of a conventional mother, yet doesn’t want to be persecuted for her decision to put music first. There are elements of this story both writer and director seemed to have left out or just graze, like when exactly Linda (her real name) left her children’s lives to become Ricki and exactly how long she’s been away, which would have added richness and more depth to the story and there are times when the script forces emotional leverage. Ricki/Linda’s kids are annoyingly privileged and not very likable. Despite having “lost” their mother, they gained a near conventionally “perfect” one (played by Audra McDonald ) soon after in their devoted father’s remarriage and were wealthy, loved and denied nothing so their resentment towards Ricki seems at best immature.These kids didn’t suffer abuse or neglect in their mother’s absence but resent her as if she put them in an orphanage. Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer plays her daughter, Julie, on screen and does a stellar job as a grieving depressive with a biting sense of humor. Cody’s ability to flush out full female characters cement the films foundation and the scenes between the women in this film, notably a confrontation scene between Streep and McDonald’s characters- two strong women who are both right and wrong in their arguments- are some of the best. The relationship between Streep and Springfield is sweet, but sometimes stifled by his acting abilities (he is Soap actor playing opposite one of the big screen’s greatest of all time, after all) and Hi-Def close-ups that make you wish he had Streep’s acumen for “growing old gracefully”. The musical portions of the film steal the show and seeing Streep, whose career spans decades, sing, play guitar, and take on a character she had yet to play and society has yet to relate to, is worth the price of admission alone.