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How Meryl Streep turned into a rock star for Ricki and the Flash

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Bob Vergara

Having attained Greatest Living Actress™ status decades ago, Meryl Streep is no stranger to radical physical transformations—prosthetic chins, platinum hair dye jobs, an “artificial wattle”—in pursuit of onscreen dynamism. But until her star turn as an aging bar band performer in Ricki and the Flash, the multiple Oscar winner had never undergone an extreme rock ‘n roll makeover.

Portraying Ricki Randazzo, a singer-guitarist who left her husband and young children 20 years earlier to pursue dreams of rock stardom (but wound up instead performing at a San Fernando Valley dive called the Salt Well) in the family drama which hit theaters Friday, Streep channels the spirit of such lady rockers as Melissa Etheridge, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Lucinda Williams. Moreover, Streep, 66, fairly exudes badass attitude encased in black leather ensembles, her eyes smoky with mascara, hair extravagantly braided.

And to hear it from Ricki and the Flash director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, the 1984 Talking Heads rockumentary Stop Making Sense) everything about Ricki—from the character’s wardrobe choices to her climactic performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down”—came courtesy of his leading lady’s singular interpretation of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s script. “Meryl developed and created this character: her musical personality, the way she moves, the way she dances on the stage, the way she plays,” says Demme. “All that stuff is 100 percent pure Meryl Streep.”

Herewith, the director provides a primer on how Streep came to channel her inner Joan Jett.

How Meryl learned electric guitar

“We were talking about the music and I was like, ‘It’s amazing how into electric guitar and rock and roll you are,’” Demme recalls. “She said, ‘Why?! Because I’m a woman? I was obsessed with electric guitar from the time I was five years old!’ So the movie provided her with the opportunity to fulfill that.

“From our first conversation, we agreed it was going to have to be live performance which, as you know, is a departure. On most movies, [performance] is done through playback. So we agreed implicitly that Meryl, who did not play guitar, was going to have to learn to play electric guitar credibly.

“For her, that meant, ‘OK, I better find a good teacher and get to work practicing.’ She worked with an acoustic guitar teacher for two or three months in New York. And having developed a familiarity with the instrument, she worked with an electric guitar teacher and arranger. She starts rehearsing. Meanwhile, we’re narrowing the list of songs and I’m casting the band. And I’m looking for Greg, [Ricki’s bandmate/boyfriend character eventually portrayed by Rick Springfield in the film].

“Gary Goetzman, one of our producers, put together a little band. And we set up in a studio space in Hollywood. And the possible Gregs came into the room and plugged in their electric guitars. In a relaxed way, we worked through four or five songs. I’m not going to name anybody but we had some really cool people come in. You had to have guitar chops to get in the door. We needed someone who could play lead in the band and be on the same level as Meryl. Rick came in and just claimed it. He came to get the part. They immediately liked each other: you saw their body language.”

Practice makes perfect

“They rehearsed so much,” Demme says. “Between three and four weeks playing the songs—with Meryl. Full band. There was a wonderful bar in New York that had just closed, the Rodeo Bar and Grill. Kind of a country rock club that had been around forever. We got it. We were able to rehearse in a bar. They came in Monday through Friday and worked a full day. Meryl wouldn’t let me come for two weeks! She let me know when I could come. They were a real band! They had developed great friendships. All the musicians were excited to develop chemistry with Meryl.

The idea was to rehearse right up to the first day of filming and then film all the performances right away. We finished rehearsing on a Friday and shot on Saturday.”

Creating Ricki’s signature look: leather and lace, black eyeliner and braids

“Meryl Streep was the motivating visionary behind that,” explains Demme. “Ann Roth, our genius costume designer, was joined at the hip with Meryl. I wasn’t allowed to see anything.  They worked on looks for ages before I got a peek. They also worked very closely with hair and makeup.

“I feel like when you have the opportunity to work with brilliant actors, they’re going to take a greater responsibility for their character than I ever could. An accomplished storytelling-style actor like Meryl Streep—the last thing I want to do is make a bunch of suggestions. When you have this quality actor, just don’t get in their way.

“Meryl takes such tremendous responsibility for her character, the narrative. It was extraordinary to see her create Ricki Randazzo. There’s one scene where she gets down off the stage at the Salt Well and goes down into the crowd, that was her! None of the extras knew what she was going to do. That scene is like a documentary. It was a real band and we were there shooting that stuff.”