When Jonathan Demme was casting his latest film, Ricki and the Flash, he was grasping for authenticity. He easily could have rounded up a group of actors to play the part of an aging bar band behind Meryl Streep’s lovable but troubled Ricki Rendazzo. Instead, he opted for real musicians with a feel for the screen.
A serio-comic rock ‘n’ roll romance, the film paints Streep as an aging rock vet angling to reconnect with her family after years spent chasing the limelight. Rick Springfield was one of many actors considered for the role of Greg, Ricki’s guitar player and love interest, but few others so expertly fit the profile. But while it’s easy to assume that Springfield is bringing quite a bit of his rock star self to the role, the situation is a bit more complex, he says.
“If I was this age playing cover tunes in a bar band still, I’d probably be miserable,” he admits. “I have so much drive and want to be the guy out there singing his own songs, but this guy is different. He had a shot at success, but not enough to sustain. But he’s settled in to being in this cover band with Ricki. He’s found his peace.”
Having spent the majority of his 40-plus-year career balancing life as a working musician and actor, Springfield has leaned more toward the latter in recent years. He’s dipped a toe in the waters of self-parody, lampooning his rock star persona on Californication, while more recently he’s explored the darker side of the craft in True Detective’s second season. But Ricki and the Flash offers something unique for Springfield, whose “Jessie’s Girl” still stands as an unimpeachable Eighties power-pop anthem. As Greg, he’s finally landed a role that brings both of his creative outlets together.
“When I heard about it, my thought was, ‘Oh my God, there’s gonna be a million guys out there that are up for this part,’ ” he says. “And there were. There were guys with names that either were really good actors but only moderate guitar players or really great guitar players but moderate actors. But Jonathan needed both, because he did want to play [the music] live.”
Along with Springfield, Demme surrounded Streep’s Ricki with an A-list backing band, including Parliament Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell Jr., who performed alongside the Talking Heads in the (also Demme-directed) concert film Stop Making Sense, and longtime Neil Young bassist Rick Rosas, who died shortly after the film’s completion. The band recorded music for the film live, without overdubs or lip-syncing. That suited Springfield and the rest of the band just fine, but for Streep, who spent months learning how to play both acoustic and electric guitar specifically for the film, there was a learning curve.
“It was actually very heartening to see Meryl Streep act very nervous,” Springfield said with a laugh. “That was good for all of us. She must have said sorry to the band 50 times in the first day.”
Maybe so, but the film’s soundtrack only provides more evidence of the legendary actress’s ability to completely absorb herself in a role. The band, fronted by Streep on guitar and vocals, retouched old classics (U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl”) and newer, more youth-savvy jams (Pink’s “Get the Party Started”) according to its own musical vision, helping give it an added dimension beyond that of a group of actors faking it for the screen. The chemistry among the band members was real, Springfield said, something that made all the difference in devising both film and soundtrack.
“Even when Meryl’s doing her thing on the mic, you can see me and Bernie looking and laughing at each other, which is something guys in bands do,” he said. “That’s what Jonathan wanted. He wanted it to feel real. It was just a matter of us all liking each other. That’s Jonathan’s casting. He pulled in a lot of people with good hearts that can pull off that camaraderie.”
Ricki and the Flash is out now in theaters. Its soundtrack will be released via Republic Records on August 7.