Music has been served well by cinema this year. Not film soundtracks, though. They’re still all written by a rotating roster of five men: Danny Elfman, Alexandre Desplat, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore and Thomas Newman, with the occasional Trent Reznor or Ryuichi Sakamoto popping up to maintain the perception of diversity.
No, I mean films about music. DVD Letterbox has raved in recent weeks about the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy and Mia Hansen-Love’s look at the mid-1990s French house music scene, Eden. Both are distinctive, fine re-creations of particular creative processes, and they are not alone.
The year began well with the entertaining if not exhaustive look at those new romantics, Spandau Ballet in Soul Boys of the Western World. Whiplash, an Oscar winner earlier in the year, is a captivating, tight drama about a New York music school. And Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s musical God Help the Girl is a dippy bit of fun.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Amy Winehouse’s tragic downfall, Amy, is a knockout that’s likely to earn an Academy Award nomination. And the NWA-certified biopic of the rappers, Straight Outta Compton, has many fans.
Then there is that symphony of excess, Mad Max: Fury Road, which, strictly speaking only contributes a firework-spewing electric guitar to the genre. But that is enough.
Not all of them work, most notably the Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All is by My Side.
But another that does work is this week’s charming release, Ricki and the Flash (PG, Universal Sony, 106min, $39.95).
Jonathan Demme’s film stars Meryl Streep as haggard and feisty guitar heroine Ricki Rendazzo, who could have been a contender but now ekes out a living playing in a bar band and working at a supermarket checkout.
“I am old, I am broke, I can’t cook a decent meal, I am getting fat,” she moans, setting up the film for its requisite redemption. In this case, its Ricki realising she should make good with her estranged or frustrated kids.
The obvious dramatic beats in Diablo Cody’s occasionally witty script are really nothing against the film’s major asset: the music. Rick Springfield plays Ricki’s beau and bandmate, Greg.
During the drama, Streep hogs the stage but under Demme’s direction (remember he has a fine career in filmed music, including the seminal Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense) and next to real musicians, Streep’s onstage performance persona is far more alluring. Ricki may be the diva in the band but Streep is not.
The band was filmed live in all its scenes and that brings a joy and authenticity to the film that the caustic and predictable screenplay struggles with elsewhere. The final wedding reception scene, shot in a freewheeling manner, is an exuberant and heartwarming vision of music’s allure. And it’s a ripping end point to a wonderful year of music in film.