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Ricki’s Wah Wah: Music and Male Privilege

Ilana Masad
September 17, 2015

by Ilana Masad

ricki-and-the-flash-screening-header-343x215WHEN I SAW the poster for Jonathan Demme’s new film, Ricki and the Flash, splashed across a huge billboard in Los Angeles, I knew immediately that I wanted to see it, no matter what it was about. There’s something about Meryl Streep dressed in what I dreamed of wearing in high school and couldn’t afford — knee-high leather boots, flawlessly tight black pants, a leather jacket with a hint of mesh somewhere underneath it — that I simply couldn’t resist. Add to that her long blond hair braided only on one side, and the guitar she was holding with a beringed hand, and I was a goner.

Having not watched a preview for the film, I entered the theater with completely misguided expectations. I thought that Ricki was a successful, touring, money-making badass, and that the film would look at what it’s like to be as active as Bruce Springsteen, John Waters, or Patti Smith, still playing music after the age of conventionally attractive. Thankfully, the mix of funny/sappy family and “issue”-drama previews that were shown in the theater right before my screening (all of which I now want to see) hinted that my expectations about Ricki and the Flash had been wrong, and that I was in for a big surprise.

The movie opens on Streep, who, according to the credits, actually plays guitar and sings. The shots of her strumming and picking are deliberate, panning from her fingers to her face to prove that there is no body double here. Streep seems like a rock n’ roll Joni Mitchell, her face blemished by the beauty of age and the absence of collagen. This first look at her is important, because the film’s biggest takeaway is Ricki’s various roles within her own life. That she is dressed as she is in the movie poster, rocking out with a Fender, belting away into a microphone, gives her tremendous power — that of any band’s front man. Except, of course, that she is a woman.

Soon we see that Ricki’s band, The Flash, is made up of people her age or older, and that they’re playing to a half-empty bar, of which they are the house band. They don’t tour. They’re not a big deal. Their biggest fan is the bartender. The folks dancing and clapping loudly are baby boomers, just like the band members, and while there is a scattering of young’uns in the bar, they appear bored by all the rock n’ roll and only get excited when Ricki introduces a Lady Gaga cover. This is an unfortunate portrayal of my generation, as so many of us bow down to what is now called “classic rock.” Listening to our parents’ music has had a profound effect on much of generation millennial. Think of any young adult scene on TV, in film, or in books — the bad boy with the heart of gold is never wearing a t-shirt with anyone newer than Nirvana or Nine Inch Nails on it, and more often than not it features Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or The Ramones. The music that Ricki and the Flash play throughout the movie is as beloved by my generation as my mother’s. Which is probably exactly the movie’s target audience — mothers and daughters, seeing as one of its major plotlines involves that relationship.

THE FILM GETS GOING as Ricki’s ex-husband Peter (played by Kevin Kline) calls to tell her that their daughter Julie’s husband has ditched her for another woman and that he thinks that maybe Ricki — whose name was Linda in her former life — will be able to help Julie, who’s moved back home, out of her depression. Julie is played by Meryl Streep’s actual daughter, Mamie Gummer, and it shows: they play off each other well throughout the film.

Ricki heeds Peter’s call for help and flies out to Indiana, where his lifestyle couldn’t be more different than hers. He and his second wife, who is out of town when Ricki arrives, live in a huge house in a gated community with more bedrooms than a B&B. Ricki wanders around, shocked — apparently this was not the kind of place she and Peter shared when she was part of the family. She sees, in a very physical sense, what she’s missed out on. It’s a double-whammy to realize that if Ricki were a successful musician, she would have a house like this too.

Here in Indiana we get the 4-1-1 on how Ricki shed her old life as Linda. She did the unthinkable, the thing that women aren’t ever supposed to do: she left. She left to pursue her dream of becoming a rock star when her children — two sons as well as her daughter — were still children. And not only did she leave to pursue an unlikely career, she failed at it.

Is what she did unthinkable? Certainly, her kids’ resentment is perfectly reasonable. They lost their mom. Worse, their mom bailed to become what is still an embarrassment to them — an aging rock star wannabe. But is carrying children in one’s womb, three of them in Ricki’s case, supposed to make every woman lose her most fundamental dreams? Some women dream of having children and see it as an ultimate goal. Some women want to have both children and careers. Some women don’t want children at all. But the fact is that women’s ability to have children is part of what defines them in our patriarchal society.

For Ricki, having children wasn’t enough. She yearned for something more, something else. As her children were not babies or toddlers when she left, this isn’t some sort of postpartum depression move; no, for Ricki, parenting didn’t mean staying with her children. Which is not to say she didn’t try to keep in touch — she did. But more and more, she felt unwanted, and so she stopped trying.

WHILE RICKI IS IN INDIANA, she manages to get her daughter out of the house. She uses Julie’s ex-husband’s credit card as a subtle way of getting back at him during what isn’t the typical mommy-daughter shopping and hairstyling outing, but more of a fuck-you to the man Julie trusted. It can be read as a commentary on both traditional femininity, the upkeep of which requires money (hair salons, make-up, clothing), and traditional masculinity (breadwinner, credit-card owner, fucker of other women).

Ricki’s sons are less forgiving than her daughter; one of them is engaged and wasn’t planning on inviting her to the wedding, while the other is gay, which Ricki doesn’t particularly understand, believing that being gay is a lifestyle choice. She is not the progressive cool mom you might assume she is — in fact, Ricki is full of surprises. She is a Republican, a supporter of “our troops,” as she says, and has a Tea Party tattoo spread across her back. Her brother was killed in the military; perhaps his dying is what reminded her that life was short and she’d better live it now, which is why she left. Or perhaps his death was so traumatic that she simply couldn’t deal with being part of a family, orphaned as she was from her own. These interpretations, however, fall back into the assumptions about women and babies — that they want them and need them — whereas during the once or twice that Ricki tries to explain herself, she says that it was her dream to move out to Los Angeles and be a musician. We should take her at her word.

Once Peter’s wife, Maureen or Mo, comes back, she tries to play nice with Ricki but she can only go so far before snapping. She points out that Ricki hasn’t been there; Mo was the de facto mother to Ricki’s abandoned children, dealing with their teenage years, being there for college prep through graduation, and supporting their lives in the now. The conversation is similar to so many we see in movies — except that it’s usually between a mother and a long-gone dad. Ricki leaves Indiana, hurt and defensive.

BACK IN L.A., waiting for her, is the lead guitarist of her band, Greg, played by Rick Springfield, with whom she has a commitment-phobic relationship. Upsetting the stereotypes again, it is she who is afraid of the labels, not he. On her first night back onstage in her bar, Ricki loses it — instead of singing, she begins speechifying about how Mick Jagger and every other male rock star of her generation got to do what she did. They sired children, left them, and nobody called them out on it. They weren’t bad dads, they were rock stars, whereas Ricki is a bad mom, and would have been labeled as such even if she had become famous.

Greg provides what in any other film would be the “womanly” voice of wisdom. He also has children who barely talk to him. He also walked out on them. And he will never forgive himself for it, just as Ricki will never forgive herself despite having followed her dream. But neither of them can have their cake and eat it to, and as Greg points out to Ricki in a heart-wrenching scene, it is not children’s job to love their parents, but parents’ job to love their children. In this, neither of them have failed. They love their children from afar, and they get close when they can, but they respect both the bark and bite of the children they’ve left behind.

Of course, Greg is a man, and gets to enjoy that Mick Jagger privilege in a way that Ricki can’t. By the end of the movie, however, Ricki finds a way to communicate with her children through what she considers the core of her being: not motherhood, not womanhood, but rather the art of making music. This bridge, flimsy though it may be, is a dramatic event, and there is no promise of anyone being able to cross that bridge again the following day, or the next one, or the one after that — but there’s a hint that it may open new lines of communication. In any event, it is the only way Ricki knows how to be herself in the moment. With her children all grown up, maybe she can have a relationship with them that moves beyond the roles of mother and daughter, mother and sons, and into the territory of people with other people.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.