In Ricki and the Flash and Danny Collins respectively, Meryl Streep and Al Pacino play aging rockers in films that have been met warmly, but softly by critics and audiences. In reality, both films showcase the mission of these two storied stars.
Written by: John Matsuya
Art by: Ben Matsuya
Spoilers for Ricki and the Flash & Danny Collins
50 & Counting
When Silver Linings Playbook came out in 2012, I was very excited. Not only because of the talent of director David O. Russell or the heat of then-ingenue Jennifer Lawrence. No, it came back to the idea of the “next great” DeNiro performance. Robert DeNiro is one of the Mount Rushmore of 70’s actors (and probably American/all-time actors), but in recent years, some have criticized his work as “paycheck roles or “beneath him.” The issue with DeNiro is that he’s not a “normal” guy. Attempts at the ordinary are always a little unsettling as he carries the power of his persona and considerable filmography into each role. That's a heavy weight to carry.
Which is why Pat Senior in Silver Linings Playbook is one of his great underrated characters. Phoning it in for DeNiro would be playing another cop or gangster in a "paint-by-numbers" script. Playing a suburban blue-collar working man with simmering emotional issues is a role that challenges our perception of DeNiro. It allows him to inhabit a character that let's us as the audience question the turmoil that broils under the surface.
I start my review on Danny Collins and Ricki and the Flash with DeNiro because 2015 is a year where we see three of the acting Mount Rushmore address the trajectory of their careers. The fact that Al Pacino and Meryl Streep each play washed-up musicians confronting their families makes the comparison even more apt. The aforementioned Robert DeNiro continues to explore the masculinity of the blue-collar American male and most of his roles serve as a reaction and response to a system that inherently antagonizes a true sense of self. Jack Nicholson - the fourth member - has seemingly retired, having not made a picture since 2010, much to all of our detriment.
As American cinema has skewed younger, our greatest actors are seek interesting roles worthy of their reputation and their mission statement. In the roles of Danny and Ricki, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep show us interesting facets of their careers through the prism of musical performance: Al Pacino self-reflexively confronts his role as artist; Meryl Streep explores the struggles of women in America.
Bridges to Babylon
Danny Collins continues a trend in Al Pacino’s filmography circa 2011: a deconstruction on his own fame and persona. In Danny Collins, Pacino is a Rod Stewart/Neil Diamond roman a clef who has made a career churning out commercially inoffensive pop hits. His fans are more granny than groupie and prepping to perform (at L.A.'s own Greek Theatere) is a production in and of itself. On his birthday, his agent gives him a letter written to him from John Lennon at the dawn of his career. Danny's hero encourages the young folk singer to stay true to his voice. Danny has a crisis of conscience; he’s been lazy with his fame, and has betrayed his earlier promise. Collins sets out to write a song that matters to him and make amends with his family.
Of course, Pacino has by no means been “lazy with his fame”; he is the actor who gave us Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, Sonny Wortzik, and Tony Montana. However, after a series of panned performances and the same recent charges leveled at DeNiro, Pacino addresses the current criticism leveled at his own career. He explores the theme of “selling out” in the post-modern Jack and Jill, bares a naked performance as an actor who has lost his ability in The Humbling. In Danny Collins, Pacino questions the consequences of not staying true to his instincts.
Al Pacino’s career has been a constant conversation with the audience. One of my favorite writers, Karina Longworth has written the definitive book tracing Pacino’s career (her chapter on Jack and Jill alone is worth the price) and there is no restraint in my effusive praise for her analysis. She looks beyond the binary loud Pacino/subtle Pacino paradigm and uncovers an introspective actor trying to stay faithful to his theatrical roots. Al Pacino has never been a conventional actor - while creating some of the most greatest characters in cinema history, he seeks to find how "Al Pacino the actor" affects an "Al Pacino movie" or "an Al Pacino performance". There might not be any actor as considerate of the screen relationship than Pacino. The irony of any actor’s career is that as he or she become more iconic, it becomes more difficult to hide in a role - iconic status is not doled out haphazardly, so few are in contention to challenge Pacino. Danny Collins might not be a masterpiece, but the film is another meta-exploration in which Pacino questions the obstacles that stand in the way of a performance that is as honest as his earlier work.
A Bigger Bang
If Danny Collins is Al Pacino as contemplative, Ricki and the Flash is Meryl Streep at her fundamental. Streep has built a fearless career playing women from distinctly different perspectives: a blue-collar labor crusader in Silkwood to the elite Prime Minister in The Iron Lady; it doesn’t matter who the woman is, Streep is able to find her strength and the unique challenges that women face regardless of politics, age, occupation, or class. Streep has few equals in her choices (Jodie Foster, Cate Blanchett, and Glenn Close come to mind), and has been able to imbue each unique character with the challenges that women face in every stage of her life.
In Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep plays a “past-her-prime” performer who works part-time at a high end grocery store to make ends meet. Ricki is not a famous rocker, she's one of the many aspiring ones still pursuing her passion, long after the age of traditional stardom. She is a rocker and a rebel in the truest sense of the word: she has rejected the societal norm of motherhood, betraying the ultimate construction of family to be herself. And she pays a steep price. Her children see her with a mixture of resentment, pity, and horror. The oppressive society, represented here by the twee millennial tastemakers with the supposedly accepting philosophy are exposed as hypocritical. For all their liberal tendencies, the children see their mother's "alternative" lifestyle as fodder for mockery and disdain.
Ricki isn't the smartest, most self-aware, or even morally correct character, but Streep manages to continually find the humanity in Ricki - her willingness to be vulnerable and her struggle to find some dignity in pursuing her happiness. Director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Diablo Cody, and Meryl Streep never judge her lifestyle choices even as her bourgeois family and millennial precious children do. The filmmakers love Ricki and strive to give her a happy moment in this movie when we know that she's had an otherwise hard life of both regret and consequences. She's earned her happy ending in this film.
There's a moment on stage where Ricki (while singing with her new beau Greg, played by Rick Springfield of "Jessie's Girl" fame) breaks down after confronting her children. During "the banter" between songs, she questions why a man can run off and pursue his dreams, while a woman who misses one recital or PTA meeting chasing her own aspirations is tantamount to an unforgivable sin to her children. Ricki echoes one of Streep's earlier performances: Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer. Even in a light, confection of a film - Streep explores the double standard of women pursuing their passions and the inherent guilt that comes along with balancing a career (or passion) with family. Ricki might have made mistakes in the past, but then again when watching Streep's non-judgmental performance, these so-called mistakes look simply like choices. And maybe it's Ricki who is broadening the definition of motherhood, while society obstinately digs in.
At first glance it might be easy to dismiss movies like Ricki and the Flash or Danny Collins, most critics have (while audiences have been more forgiving). If you do, you couldn't be more wrong. It's important to note, that actors (artists and writers), unlike athletes, don't depreciate with age; they get better. Instincts hone and life experience adds more nuance and depth. Streep and Pacino are two of the best, and if want more movies to rise to the challenge of their abilities (and more representation of older characters), it's up to us to support their films and indulge in their performances.
Danny Collins (2015)
- Director: Dan Fogelman
- Writer: Dan Fogelman
- Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer
- Producer: Declan Baldwin, Denise Di Novi, Monica Levinson, Nimitt Mankad, Jessie Nelson, Shivani Rawat
- Music by: Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro
- Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
- Director: Jonathan Demme
- Writer: Diablo Cody
- Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald
- Producer: Ronald M. Bozeman, Marc Platt, Rocco Caruso, Mason Novick
- Music by: Ricki and the Flash / Various Artists
- Cinematography: Declan Quinn