Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme interview

Jonathan Demme discusses working with Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash, a movie loaded with musical performances and domestic tensions

Interview

The place is seedy yet wonderful: A Tarzana, Los Angeles, bar where, in the universe of Ricki and the Flash, a well-oiled machine of a bar band kicks out the jams week after week to an appreciative crowd. They’re grizzled, as are some of their pogo-ing fans on the dancefloor, but the music is ageless. Working with Meryl Streep (who can really play), ’80s icon Rick Springfield (who can really act) and a fully functioning band of musicians (including Talking Heads sideman Bernie Worrell, also seen in Stop Making Sense), director Jonathan Demme found himself filming a group of pros, who rehearsed and performed the tunes live. Demme talks us through the process.

Your movie is already famously, the one for which Meryl Streep actually learned how to play the guitar. Whose idea was that?
I guess I brought it up first. Look, the movie’s about the leader of a band. She sings and plays electric guitar. And if we come out lying about Ricki’s abilities [it looks bad]. Also, I’ve shot so much live musical footage over the years, plus a little bit in the world of video playback, so I know the difference as well as one can. So when I expressed this to Meryl, I guess I said something like, ‘Of course, it will all be live performances, we won’t have playback and we won’t lean on postproduction rerecording or anything.’ I think Meryl said, ‘Of course, I’ll have to learn how to play the guitar.’

Was she freaked out?
No, I don’t think so. In fact, the vibe I’ve taken from our conversations is that this is a long-held dream of Meryl’s – to play rock ’n’ roll music on an electric guitar.

A long-held dream for most of us!
Well, it’s true. And most of us settle for air guitar. But Meryl’s the complete actor, so she’s going to show up as close to that person as she possibly can. I think that this gave her the opportunity to both immerse herself in the character that much more, and also to finally become a rock guitarist.
The film has several musical numbers, during which much dramatic content has to be expressed simply through the lyrics and the performances.

How does one direct those scenes in a technical sense?
It’s obviously an arena that a lot of thought and energy went to. I didn’t really understand the extent to which that was true until it was happening in front of the camera. I’m thinking especially now of ‘Drift Away’. I picked that one. It jumped off the page for me because my original thinking was: This is such a great band song. It’s got a narrative, emotional feel to it. Ricki says, ‘Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock ’n’ roll and drift away.’ This is a band camaraderie song. Making that band feel like the family that Ricki’s now a part of, instead of the one she once had, was tremendously important.

I loved watching Streep perform in this, even the smallest things, like how she decided to palm-strum the acoustic number Cold One, almost like a caress or a slap.
Of course it was Meryl’s choice to do it that way. All of Ricki’s moves – that extraordinary scene when she goes down into the audience – that’s all her. Meryl is definitely an authentic rock ’n’ roll animal. And now we get to see that.

Your movie is expressly about ageing, and the perspective it gives a person.
I’m worried about our press materials: ‘Meryl Streep stars as an ageing rocker.’ She’s a rocker! What is this ageing? I’ve become paranoid about it. Here are musicians whose chops are phenomenal, but they’re over the hill career-wise. They just didn’t make it. Some do, most don’t.

But the subject of age and wisdom is crucial here, no? It’s not just about Ricki’s denial of the way she abandoned her children.
I’m really moved by the place that this good woman has found herself in as her endgame: alienated from her family, but at least she has her music. I guess I can’t help but judge Ricki somewhat, because I get that you’re a musician and you’ve gotta go for it. But as a parent, I’m like, ‘How could she do that?’ Well, lots of people do that. The point that Ricki makes in the movie is that men do it a lot more often than women do, and they can come back. She’s judged and criticised and torn apart, and yet she weathers it. I love Ricki for being so courageous. I forgive her.
Ricki and the Flash is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday September 3.

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