Neil Citron: The Man Behind Meryl Streep’s Rocking Debut

Ricki & the Flash Music Director Neil Citron reveals the challenges of recording musicians live for film.

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With today’s film technology moviegoers have come to expect unwavering realism. That’s why, when it comes to modern day films about music, the musicians on camera need to actually play their instruments. It’s no longer acceptable to use prerecorded music and have the actors lip sync or pretend to play. In creating the film Ricki & the Flash, director Jonathan Demme took this philosophy to the extreme.

“This is a film where everybody played live and every cut is them playing live, no overdubs, no fixing,” says the film’s music director, Neil Citron. “That’s just unheard of in the film business so it sets a real precedent, I hope.”

The film’s producer, Gary Goetzman, knew he could count on Citron to help him make it happen. The musician, engineer, composer, and consultant had already worked with Goetzman, instructing the actors/band members in the 1996 Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do.

“I taught Steve Zahn first and then I got with Jonathan Schaech. At the end, I was the guy on stage watching everybody in that film, just to make sure everybody looked good,” says Citron.

Originally, the Ricki & the Flash band was only going to perform three live songs, and Citron was brought in to audition against Meryl Streep, prior to the real band. “I wound up sort of arranging the tunes and learning them on the spot,” he says. “When the band began playing and it sounded good, Jonathan just decided to do more and more.” In the end, 10 songs were recorded live.

Guitar Lessons

Citron’s role as music director for the film grew to encompass many different tasks, the first of which was to teach Streep how to play guitar. She’d had a few prior guitar lessons, including a lesson on distortion from Neil Young, but if she was going to be believable as a professional rocker there was a lot to learn, explains Citron.

“My analogy is that she was taught proper Spanish, not street Spanish,” he says. “I taught her street guitar. She was playing things very stiff and was not very ‘Keith Richards’ looking, so that’s where I spent most of my time—making her look right.” They focused on things like choosing the right chord formations, where she should hold her hands, when she should pull up on the neck, and what pickup she should use.

Streep’s background with music, helped a lot. “Even though she didn’t play guitar, she understands music. She has great timing. I could show her different rhythms and stuff,” says Citron, adding that this is one of the hardest things to teach. “If someone has no sense of rhythm it’s nearly impossible. There was one an actor I taught [for another film] who had no rhythm, so I was behind the camera strumming and he just followed my hand movement.”

The other thing that worked in her favor, was Streep’s strong work ethic and her uncompromising insistence on getting it right. The pair rehearsed eight hours a day to get her ready for the film. “We’d play and she sang every time,” says Citron. “I’d say, ‘Do you want to just work on the guitar playing?’ and she said, ‘No, I’m going to play and sing every time.’ She’s a trooper. If she did something wrong, she would keep playing it until there were less than two mistakes, then we could go on to the next song.”

Streep already knew the lyrics to most of the songs, but she also did her homework studying female rockers for the part. “The ‘look’ was all hers; I just put the Tele in her hand!” says Citron. Streep is also credited with coming up with the right “inappropriate” wedding song for the last scene. She suggested Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down.”

When Citron taught her how to play acoustic guitar in a percussive style for a living room scene, she picked it up right away. “She filmed me doing it on her phone and the next time I saw her she was doing it. That was pretty amazing!” he says.

Veteran Rockers

As far as the rest of the band/cast goes there was no instruction needed; they are all veteran rockers: Rick Springfield as Greg, Rick Rosas (longtime bassist for Neil Young) as Buster, Joe Vitale (drummer for Joe Walsh, CSN, Michael Stanley Band) as Joe, and organist Bernie Worrell (from George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, Talking Heads) as Billy.

For the most part, Demme picked the musicians. “He had worked on Heart of Gold with Neil Young, and that’s where Rosas came in; he had done Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads and that’s how Bernie Worrell got in. And Joe had worked with everybody in the past, so that’s sort of how the rhythm section happened,” says Citron.

But just because they used professional musicians, doesn’t mean live recording was a simple process. For example, the hardest song to put together was “American Girl,” but not because of any musical complexity; it just had the most cuts.

“They edit visually, not by sound; so that one had the most pieces. One single take would have been fine, if Jonathan had only used the camera from that take, but ‘American Girl’ had seven takes cut together. That’s why people don’t do a lot of live recording, because it’s crazy,” says Citron.  “[Music supervisor] Mark Wolfson and I would mix to their cuts and then, a week later, there would be new cuts so we would have to readjust the cuts on our side. It was constant; over a month of time we did a bunch of different mixes.”

Recording Without Mics

But that wasn’t the biggest challenge with recording the band live. Because a cover band like Ricki & the Flash would only have three vocal mics, Demme insisted that that was all he wanted to see on film. Recording without mics is difficult, says Citron, who took it on as a personal challenge.

“If I’d only had one day to figure it out, it would have been a little tough, but we had a few days to work out the best plan of attack to get the best results,” he says. Though they were able to hang a drum mic in the light rails above Joe’s head, it constantly overheated. They tried putting mics in back of the amps but it sounded terrible.

“We had to use direct boxes on the amps and then re-amp them; you sort of capture the performance and then you play it back through an amplifier and mic it up and record it later,” explains Citron. “We used drum triggers on the drums and put Joe’s recorded drum samples to them later. This kind of stuff was the hardest part of the whole thing, and maybe the most interesting.”

Check out the gear Neil Citron uses.

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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