Meryl Streep’s joie de vivre is undeniable. She throws herself into the roles she chooses with thoroughness and vigor, and even in her more serious roles, she seems to perform with a kind of joy that’s always flowing just under the surface. One feels she truly loves her craft, and no matter the role, she’s in it, with all her heart. And she’s good, of course. The best, maybe. Everybody knows that. She can play it camp, she can play it serious, she can play it comic. She’s a master of voices and tones, on screen and off screen, big roles and small (my children and I love her superb narration of the Kevin Henkes’s picture book, Chrysanthemum). And she sings, too, with that same mastery and joy we see in her acting. Her early training, as she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2012, included opera, and she’s proved her vocal quality and her skill in musical performance in films like Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia!, and Into the Woods. Never mind her acting, I’d go to a concert just to hear Meryl Streep sing.
And that’s a lot of what we get in Jonathan Demme’s latest film, Ricki and the Flash: a Meryl Streep concert film, featuring full length, live performance songs, where Streep not only sings but plays guitar, and she performs with professional musicians: Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, and Bernie Worrell. Extraordinarily, she seems like one of them. It’s unfortunate perhaps, then, that the film isn’t fully a concert film, that it’s not a kind of fictional version of the documentary concert films Demme made early in his career – Stop Making Sense (1984) – and has made within the past decade or so: Enzo Avitabile: Music Life (2012); Kenny Chesney: Unstaged (2012); and a trio of Neil Young films, Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), Trunk Show (2009), Neil Young Journeys (2012). It’d be an odd concert film, to be sure – an actress playing and singing cover songs with professional musicians in front of a fictional audience comprised of a collection of extras – but that sort of film is possible; it’s very close, for example, to what Robert Altman did so delightfully with Streep, a part of an ensemble cast, in A Prairie Home Companion. Demme, surely, could do something in the same vein, particularly if he had the caliber of musical performers he has in Ricki. I’d like to see it. Continue reading