With three Oscars, eight Golden Globes, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, you’d think there is nothing left for Meryl Streep to accomplish in her professional career. But as her Ricki and the Flash director Jonathan Demme told Yahoo Movies on Tuesday, Streep had some unfinished artistic business dating back to her earliest days growing up in New Jersey.
“Meryl has told me that from the time she was a kid, she at the age of 7 found herself in front of a radio loving electric guitar and rock ‘n roll,” Demme said. “She has lived as this kind-of wannabe guitar beast, and this part gave her the opportunity actually do that.”
In Ricki, Streep plays the title character, a rhythm guitarist and lead singer for a small-time band who years ago made the choice to sacrifice family responsibilities for a shot at fame. Streep, 65, finally learned to play guitar for the film written by Diablo Cody (Juno).
As you can see in the clip above, Streep took to the instrument as well as she’s handled every other challenge in her career. Much of the film focuses on Ricki coming back home to face up to the family she more-or-less abandoned years earlier. The song she’s singing — to her ex-husband (played by Kevin Klein) and her daughter (played by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) — was written specifically for the film by singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice and is called “Cold One.”
Streep spent months learning to play guitar, in part because, as Demme explains, she was required to actually perform “an extraordinary range” of songs in the film. Demme, who has directed rock documentaries like Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold, insisted on the authenticity of live performances. Streep fronted a band that included Rick Springfield (who plays her love interest), Parliament Funkadelic member Bernie Worrell, and drummer Joe Vitale, best known for working with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Cody suggested songs in her screenplay (tunes by Lady Gaga and Pink made the cut), but the mix of rights issues and typical on-set revisions also led Demme to look for other options. Along with old classic cover tracks like “Wooly Bully” and Edgar Winters’ “Keep Playin’ That Rock ‘N Roll,” Demme made sure to add Tom Petty’s “American Girl” to the film. With Streep’s character singing it, the song about a disappointed dreamer becomes “implied autobiographical,” the director said.
But perhaps the most important song in the film was selected by Streep herself: Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” an outtake from Born in the USA that was first released on the Boss’s 1998 Tracks compilation album.
“We did two takes of the song, and it’s performed in front of a pretty big crowd,” Demme remembered. “And by that point, Meryl wasn’t even looking at the strings, she was just playing. There’s an intense instrumental break in the middle of it, and the cameras just caught it so beautifully. It’s Meryl, Rick Springfield and the late great Rick Rosas all leaning into each other and tearing it up and shredding the hell out of it.”
Streep shred so hard, Demme said, it actually shred her a little bit.
“We cut, and I go running up to Meryl and everybody and am like, God that’s amazing!” Demme said. “And she shows me her hand, and she’s torn the skin off the second digit, there was no skin between the nail and the digit and there’s blood on her blue dress.”
Ricki and the Flash hits theaters on Aug. 7.