“Ricki and the Flash” offers more than just a chance to check out Oscar’s favorite actress as a bar-band diva who’s a cross between Chrissie Hynde and Melissa Etheridge coming to terms with the family she long ago left behind.
Moviegoers will also witness Meryl Streep as she continues to fulfill what appears to be her ultimate destiny as a musical star on the big screen, one that she has been building towards for much of her big-screen career.
Unlike Al Pacino’s similar “Danny Collins” from earlier this year, Streep is fully vested in the musical aspects of her first summer outing since 2012’s “Hope Springs.” The comedy-drama, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme, requires the star to belt a dozen cover songs, including Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,” all recorded in front of a live audience.
Not only that, the 66-year-old Streep puts the six months she spent practicing guitar to good use – as shown here as her Ricki Randazzo serenades her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) and estranged daughter (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) with “Cold One,” an original song co-written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice.
She might not get Oscar nom No. 20 for her leather-clad senior-discount version of Joan Jett. But she sure sounds as if she is having fun. As Gummer told Entertainment Weekly, “She loves, loves, loves to sing. Loves it more than almost anything. She did this so she’d have permission to sing – and I couldn’t tell her to shut up!”
Take that, Pauline Kael, onetime reigning doyenne of film critics who once sneeringly dismissed Streep as an “automaton” who only acted from the neck up. These days, she acts with every part of her body – especially when she sings.
Most are aware that Streep, who was once a frontrunner to headline a film version of “Evita!” long before Madonna claimed the title role in the 1996 release, has put her stamp on two popular movie musicals in the past decade, as a disco queen turned Greek isle innkeeper in 2008’s “Mamma Mia!” and as a calculating witch in Stephen Sondheim’s 2014 adaptation “Into the Woods.”
But the Vassar drama grad, who almost majored in music until the math required for Music Theory 101 did her in, has been singing for her Hollywood supper from the start – and probably much more than even her most devoted fans realize. Le Streep might not rival Judy Garland, but she has had a considerable tuneful impact in her nearly 40 years on the big screen.
Here are ten Streep movie classics that showcase her musical talents in ways both big and small in preparation for her rocking Ricki.
1. “The Deer Hunter” (1978)
Besides supplying the first of Streep’s 19 Academy Award nominations, for her supporting role as a small-town gal torn between battle-bound fiancé Christopher Walken and pal Robert De Niro, the best-picture-winning Vietnam War drama caused controversy by concluding with a subdued rendition of “God Bless America.” Critics debated whether filmmaker Michael Cimino meant the patriotic anthem to be taken seriously or if he was making an ironic statement about the country’s involvement in the conflict.
What was more certain is why Streep was picked to kick off the group sing-along by the cast. The actress, who made her 1977 Broadway debut performing “Surabaya Johnny” in “Happy End,” clearly had the pipes to pull it off.
2. “Heartburn” (1986)
Reviewers were divided on this uneven tale of wedded woe directed by Streep fave Mike Nichols and adapted by Nora Ephron from her semi-autobiographical novel about her turbulent marriage to philandering Washington Post hotshot Carl Bernstein. Roger Ebert’s reaction was typical: “This is a bitter, sour movie about two people who are only marginally interesting.”
But if any scene can be considered the saving grace of this downbeat dissection of a rotting relationship, it is when Streep’s food writer Rachel tells Jack Nicholson’s political columnist Mark, as they ravenously dig into a pizza, that she is probably pregnant with their first child.
Overjoyed by the announcement, he suggests they croon “all the songs we know about babies.” They end up including “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” The spontaneous harmonizing is quite infectious. Side note: Gummer made her film debut playing Annie, Rachel’s baby.
3. “Ironweed” (1987)
Streep and Nicholson partnered once more, with somewhat better results. They were both Oscar-nominated for this Depression-era drama based on William Kennedy’s acclaimed novel about homeless alcoholic Francis, haunted by his tragic past, and sickly drinking companion Helen.
In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin took particular note of the actress’s musical number, which is part uplifting fantasy, part sobering reality as she is required to do two distinctly different renditions of an early 20th-century chestnut about an enduring friendship: “Miss Streep is even more utterly changed than her co-star, and she even sings well. The sequence in which Helen entertains the real and imagined patrons of a bar room with a rendition of ‘He’s Me Pal’ is a standout.“
When Anne Hathaway paid tribute to Streep, her imperious boss from “The Devil Wears Prada,” at the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, she performed “She’s Me Pal” – a clever twist on the medal recipient’s “Ironweed” anthem.
4. “Postcards From the Edge” (1990)
This Nichols-directed comedy based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel about the struggles of Suzanne Vale, the acting daughter of a beloved Hollywood legend who ends up in rehab after OD’ing. Streep goes more than a little bit country during the film’s closing number as she impressively belts “I’m Checkin’ Out,” an Oscar-nominated original song penned by Shel Silverstein, while backed by Canadian band Blue Rodeo.
Sample lyrics from the chorus: “So, take down my suitcase and hand me my hat/ I’m goin’ from sleazy to swell/ Give that desk-clerk a dime/And you can just tell him that I’m/Checkin’ out of this heartbreak hotel.”
In the film’s production notes, Streep claimed – despite clearly having previous singing experience on screen and stage – that she felt fear and anxiety about playing Suzanne. “One of the reasons I took this part was because I’m so afraid of singing in front of people, and this role was a way to explore my own insecurities about myself.” Some of that challenge might have come from the fact that Streep was embodying a movie actress, a situation not that far removed from her own.
Earlier in “Postcards,” a shakier Suzanne does a less-assured version of Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me” right before being upstaged by her dazzling mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. But by the time the credits roll, a looser-than-ever Streep – as well as her character — has found her musical groove.
Alas, Streep – who earned her ninth Academy Award nomination for the role – was pregnant with her fourth child, Louisa, at the time of the ceremony and could not sing on the show. Country star Reba McEntire filled in for her.
5. “Death Becomes Her” (1992)
Robert Zemeckis’ mean-spirited, misogynistic dark comedy pokes fun at Hollywood’s obsession with perpetual youth with the aid of then-state-of-the-art Oscar-winning visual effects . Basically, the whole premise is a set up for a movie-long catfight after Streep’s haughty over-the-hill actress Madeline steals away college buddy Goldie Hawn’s plastic surgeon fiance (Bruce Willis), primarily for his way with a knife.
Streep’s big number kicks off the movie in over-the-top fashion, a farcical Broadway curtain raiser for an ill-advised musical adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Sweet Bird of Youth.” As Madeline warbles “Me,” an ode to stare-in-the-mirror narcissism (“I see me, I see me, actress, woman, star and lover/Sister, sweetheart, slave and mother”), a squad of chorus boys hoists her about the stage and a stampede of horrified patrons race to the exit.
Streep once admitted that she thought Hawn, better known for her musical ability, would have played the “song-and-dance” role of Madeline instead. But considering that what she accomplishes with a swish of her molting boa and a kick of her leg comes this close to “Springtime for Hitler” in sheer awfulness, the casting seems right on.
6. “Music of the Heart” (1999)
Director Wes Craven stepped outside his horror comfort zone for this fact-based heart-string tugger about Roberta Guasperi, who retreats into the world of music education after her husband dumps her to teach inner-city kids at a tough Harlem school about the joys of playing a string instrument.
Critics quibbled over the worthiness of this rather rote sentimental tribute to the power of art, but few questioned Streep’s portrayal of a scrappy working-class divorcee who rises above adversity while changing young lives. With typical dedication, the actress – a last-minute replacement for Madonna, who dropped out over creative differences – practiced the violin for six hours a day for four weeks. That way, she could believably play during the climatic concert scene featuring students alongside such real-life virtuosos as Isaac Stern, Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman as they perform Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins.”
Oh, and she got another Oscar nomination—No. 12 — for this as well.
7. “A Prairie Home Companion” (1999).
One of the delights of filmmaker Robert Altman’s rambling swan song spun from Garrison Keillor’s folksy public radio show is the pairing of Lily Tomlin and Streep as the Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda, surviving members of a musical clan hailing from Oshkosh, Wisc.
New York magazine’s David Edelstein included a little valentine to each in his review: “Streep is just as brilliant. Her Yolanda is a goosy creature with sloppy cleavage and a Minnesota twitter: It might have been a caricature, but when she plays a performer, a childish joy breaks through her often over-controlled demeanor. And if Tomlin’s face has become a bit of a mask in recent years, her dryness makes her Streep’s perfect foil—and her timing is as gorgeous as ever.”
Their voices blend wonderfully on their two duets, a Midwestern twist on Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and a Keillor-penned “Goodbye to My Mama.” Streep also has the pleasure of harmonizing with Keillor – he and Yolanda once had a thing together and a bit of a spark is still there – as they perform a commercial jingle for frozen rhubarb pie and filling as well as the ballad “Gold Watch and Chain. “
In a way, the downhome, relaxed nature of “A Prairie Home Companion” – including the fact that Lindsay Lohan plays Yolanda’s suicide-obsessed daughter – was the perfect rehearsal for her next musical cinematic challenge.
8. “Mamma Mia!” (2008)
Finally, Meryl gets the Broadway adaptation that she deserves based on the mother of all jukebox musicals. Streep roars through no fewer than 13 ABBA hits as Donna, a middle-aged free spirit and single mom whose daughter invites three lovers from her mother’s past to her wedding on a romantic Greek island – leading each man to believe they are her father.
While the movie itself has a slap-dash air of spontaneity about it, from the jumpy camera work to the intentionally sloppy choreography, Streep looks like she is, indeed, having the time of her life – flirting with Pierce Brosnan, giggling with Christine Baranski and Julie Walters or cuddling with Amanda Seyfried as her daughter.
Little wonder the infectious confection would become Streep’s biggest box-office hit, taking in $144 million domestically and an astonishing $610 worldwide. Who needs an Oscar nod when you have money, money, money?
As for a musical sampling, nothing captures the spirit of “Mamma Mia!” better than “Dancing Queen,” complete with Streep’s show-stopping mid-air split while bouncing on a bed.
9. “August: Osage County” (2013)
As Violet Weston, a pill-addicted, chain-smoking matriarch of a contentious Oklahoma family whose mouth cancer does nothing to take the sting out her constant tongue lashings, Streep chooses to either bellow loudly or zing sarcastically, not sing. But if one image lingers in the mind after watching the troubled tribe as they gather for the funeral of Violet’s husband, it is her last scene – which greatly relies on music.
After all the arguing, tears and recriminations of the past few days, she places the Eric Clapton LP “Slowhand” on the turntable, and starts to crazily dance about to her favorite song, “Lay Down Sally,” eventually yanking the wig off her head to reveal her shorn head. It is a crushing portrait of a woman with nowhere to go and barely a reason to live. It’s as if she is dancing her way into her grave.
And, yes, an Oscar nomination was in the offing for Streep, No. 18.
10. “Into the Woods” (2014)
Family also figures strongly in this adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical fantasy based on Grimm’s fairy tales and directed by “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall. Streep is a true force of nature as a craggy sorceress who keeps her golden-haired daughter Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) locked up so she have her all to herself. She also manipulates the Baker and his wife (James Corden, Emily Blunt) to collect four items that will allow her to reclaim her youth and beauty while removing their curse of childlessness.
Streep has more competition for the spotlight than usual, especially when it comes to singing. Chris Pine nails his part as a self-adoring royal pain and Anna Kendrick enchants as a disillusioned Cinderella. But the reason that “Woods” grossed $128 million domestically, becoming Streep’s second highest-grossing film, is primarily the combination of her followers and the cult of Sondheim. The musical also yielded her 19th Oscar nomination.
If this nearly all-sung “Into the Woods” proved anything, it is that Streep has mastered the art of pairing powerhouse vocalizing with a nuanced dramatic performance. The two songs highlighted below capture two sides of her witch, tender (“Stay With Me”) and tempestuous (“The Last Midnight”).
There is also music to be found in Streep’s future work. She joins forces with director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Philomena”) for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a biopic about an early 20th-century New York heiress with musical ambitions who became known as the world’s worst opera singer. Considering the actress studied opera when she was young, one can only hope that this outing hits a new high note for Streep.