'Ricki and the Flash' Director Jonathan Demme on the Movie's Oscar Push and Pink Floyd Turning Him Down
He’s helmed dramas like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia and concert films for Neil Young and Talking Heads, but Ricki and the Flash represents the first time Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme has combined his two movie-making passions: vibrant storytelling and live music.
The Sony/TriStar film (which opens Aug. 7), stars Meryl Streep as Ricki Rendazzo, a woman who leaves her family to pursue her dream of making music, only to end up in a bar band in Los Angeles that’s “hanging on by the skin of its teeth,” Demme says. Joining Streep, who took guitar lessons for months, in the band are famed musicians Rick Springfield, late bassist Rick Rosas (Neil Young, Joe Walsh), Joe Vitale (Walsh, The Eagles) and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bernie Worrell (Parliament/Funkadelic). The performances in the movie were captured live with no overdubs.
Demme talked to Billboard about his first mainstream feature film since 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, securing a Bruce Springsteen track and the one band who turned him down. The movie’s soundtrack also comes out Aug. 7 on Republic.
What about Diablo Cody’s script appealed to you?
I read the script and fell in love with it. It contains a lot of things that made it worth jumping back into the fire with a bigger budget. It’s completely original and there’s the opportunity to shoot so much live performance music in a fiction [film]. There’s no such thing, but, honestly, I thought they could never find anyone better to do this than me. This is up every alley I’ve got.
What experience from directing concert films did you bring to this movie?
When you can get musicians even just looking at each other during the middle of a song and sharing a smile, that’s going to make your performance film twice as good. I also knew that it was important to not fall into the trap of a lot of editing going on during the musical performance.
Did you ever have to say to any of the musicians in the band, “Hey, don’t play so well. You’re playing a bar here, not Madison Square Garden.”
No, but Rick Rosas, toward the end of our last rehearsal, said, “You guys, we gotta somehow sloppy this up.” They created a real band. I knew that they were going to get along with each other. Who doesn’t have a gigantic crush on Meryl Streep?
How soon did Rick Rosas die of lung disease after completing shooting?
He went home and two weeks later he died. I got the news on the set. I had to tell the cast and crew. Rick had been getting tired sooner over the course of the three months that we were working together…but there was no warning of this to us.
He played with Neil Young, with whom you’ve done three music documentaries. Is that why Neil is thanked in the credits?
Neil is thanked for two reasons. One, he was the cupid that brought Rick Rosas to this movie, and the other is because Neil Young taught Meryl Streep her first electric guitar chord.
Name-checking Mick Jagger in the film, Ricki comments that dads who leave their families to follow their dreams aren’t chastised like moms. Do you think that’s true?
Oh, hell yes. I’m an authentic feminist and I know that the whole journey is feminist in perspective, but I didn’t realize how feminist [and] hard-hitting some of this stuff was that Diablo embedded in the screen\play.
The movie is very music-heavy. How closely did you work with the music supervisor?
The musical supervision [was] a triumvirate of [producer] Gary Goetzman, Meryl and myself. Diablo put some songs into the script but a lot of the songs that [Diablo suggested] were completely unaffordable. We looked at the Sony catalog, [thinking] since it was Sony Pictures, they would negotiate in a friendly kind of way with us and they did.
The band performs Bruce Springsteen's “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” After he won an Oscar for best original song from your film Philadelphia, will he give you whatever you want?
It was Meryl who [suggested that song]. Gary was able to figure out a way to get the rights to some extraordinarily difficult songs by creating a favored nations situation that was good for the writers, but made it affordable for us. Deeper than that I dare not go.
Any songs you wanted but couldn’t get?
There was a Pink Floyd song that I wanted very badly as a source cue from Dark Side of the Moon and Pink Floyd just didn’t want to go down the favored nations road, which lead to an even greater song, ELO’s “Laredo Tornado.”
Which Dark Side of the Moon track?
Is there one called “Inside Outside” or “Upside Down,” something like that? I’m not sure because I was too high listening to those records to really know what the titles were (laughs).
“Us and Them”?
How did the one new song, “Cold One,” come about? Planning an Oscar push?
I produced a movie last year called Song One, [which featured songs by] Jenny [Lewis] and Johnathan [Rice]. I remember amazing song after amazing song coming through. So it was a bunt to them [to] say, “Would you please read the screenplay and see if you can figure out a song that Ricki would have written?” “Cold One” showed up and that was that. Sony and TriStar adore that song, so I think the song itself is going to be its own Oscar push.
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.