What does a Jonathan Demme film look like? From features to docs to television, he has an old studio player’s utilitarian work ethic; restless and unfussy. Aside from the musical fixation, there’s little in the way of recurring thematic concerns or visual tics. To rephrase the question, where is the auteur in Jonathan Demme? His new film, Ricki and the Flash (2015), gives us the answer almost immediately. The camera tracks a man into a bar then pulls up to find the band playing on stage. We switch between band and audience throughout the song – the shared bonhomie of musical communion. It is a kind of unspoken, unassuming connection that makes a Jonathan Demme film.
It’s there in his great concert films – David Byrne practically can-canning his way through the jauntier numbers of Stop Making Sense (1984), engerising the band around him. It’s in the trajectory of his three Neil Young films, as we trace not only the singer’s growth as an artist, but his place among the people and landscape around him. Something Wild (1986) is built on it – two opposites who are each drawn to the void in the other. And, of course, it’s in the knotty reassurance in Clarisse Starling’s (Jodie Foster) face as she receives a call from Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) during her FBI graduation ceremony in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). They are the moments that bind people together. Which is perhaps why Ricki and the Flash sees Demme returning to the scene of a wedding, seven years after the divisive Rachel Getting Married (2008) – it’s a series of broken connections gathering to be repaired at a big artificial one.
Meryl Street plays Ricki; shop clerk by day, pub rock singer by night. One day she receives a call from her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) asking her to return from California to help her daughter (Streep’s real life daughter, Mamie Gummer) recover from a suicide attempt. While there, there are several difficult reunions with her family, culminating in her son’s wedding. Screenwriter Diablo Cody specialises in this particularly spiky brand of protagonist but, while her signature style is clearly present, Demme and Streep help blunt the edges, crafting an unexpected crowdpleaser out of the potentially downbeat material. Streep largely ditches the ghoulish grand dame act she’s been peddling in recent years; though she is still mannered in the picture, there’s a mild looseness to her performance that has been missing for a long time. Demme plods through the familial tangles (though these moments do still retain a healthy dose of acidity), but he tears through the music scenes with real verve. The film comes alive when Ricki is onstage; it’s throwback barroom rock, euphorically delivered. That’s when the magic happens – that’s when we see Demme’s connections sparking.