The life of the woman behind the greatest girl power anthem of all time gets the cinematic treatment.
Let me just preface this review by stating that I am a stupid male. I have always considered myself to be an ardent champion of women and those figures who seek advance the state and status of women. But for most of my life, I must admit that I only knew Helen Reddy as the charming lighthouse keeper Nora from the Disney classic Pete’s Dragon. Yes, the creator of “I Am Woman,” perhaps the greatest anthem to honor and celebrate women ever recorded, existed in my mind as a Disney character until a decade or so ago when I discovered Reddy and her contributions to the world of music and women’s rights. It appears I wasn’t alone in obscuring Reddy as much of the world had seemed to have overlooked her as well, least of all her own country who took ages to even admit her into the ARIA hall of fame. Today however, both the industry and the public has given Reddy all the love and recognition she has always deserved as her artistry is continuously being reappraised. This naturally would result in her own biopic; in this case, the aptly titled I Am Woman. But even though Reddy’s work is finally being heralded, it seems that the story of her life may have longer to wait before it gets its proper due.
I Am Woman charts the evolution of Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) beginning with her arrival in New York, her early beginnings as a struggling singer, her friendship with rock journalist Lilian Roxon (Danielle McDonald) and her romance with future husband/manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). As Helen becomes a sensation, the struggles between fame and her personal life begin to take their toll as the singer rises to become one of feminism’s greatest heroines.
For audiences who are fans of traditional biopics, I Am Woman certainly won’t let them down. Director Unjoo Moon stays true to the biopic tradition when telling the story of a woman who may not have set out to carry the flag, yet couldn’t help but follow that instinct. Moon chronicles enough of Reddy’s life so that we get a sense of Helen’s frustrations with the male-dominated world she finds herself in and her attraction to the overly-energetic Jeff. Meanwhile, as the fame and hits pile up, I Am Woman offers up quieter moments in which we see Helen taking everything in and observing with awe at what her life is becoming. One pivotal scene shows Helen all but hold Jeff prisoner in his home office until he is able to secure a meeting with the head of the label he works for. As he makes phone call after phone call, we see a Helen coming into her own and taking charge of her career in a way she never had before. When Jeff’s calls finally bear fruit, the exhausted couple is elated. It’s quite honestly one of the best scenes in the film that speaks volumes about their complicated relationship. The scene also shows how I Am Woman isn’t held captive by a need to clock every moment of Helen’s life and lets a number of scenes play out and breathe for as long as they need to. As a result, there’s very little of the film which feels forced or rushed; a nice change of pace from other similar titles so determined to follow their subjects from the cradle to the grave and everywhere in between.
And yet in spite of I Am Woman’s goodwill, it’s hard to shake the face that it doesn’t really do anything with it’s subjects; at least not as much as it could. The aforementioned scene is a highlight of the film and was the perfect opportunity to further explore Helen’s ascent from housewife to successful recording artist as women’s liberation played out across the country, but it doesn’t engage quite enough when it comes looking at her relationship with feminism. Repeated attempts to merge Helen’s story with the fight to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified are half-baked at best and do nothing more than serve as a glorified visual aid. It’s a shame, but not as much as what the movie does with the character of Jeff. After a key scene in which Jeff pretends to agree with record executives that “I Am Woman” isn’t commercial enough leaves him with an angry Helen, he reveals a secret plan to launch the song via the club circuit in the hopes that those in attendance will make it a hit through radio requests. The plan works and an anthem is born. It’s a great scene, but almost immediately after, Jeff is given a cocaine habit and then turned into an almost total ogre. Rather than deal with this and other aspects of Helen’s life which bear actual exploring, I Am Woman opts for a song moment to distract when it doesn’t know where to go. Luckily when your subject is the voice behind “Delta Dawn,” “Angie Baby” and “You and Me Against the World,” you can almost get away with it.
Cobham-Hervey nails Reddy through every facet of her performance. Not only does she look and sound like the singer, but she seems to have captured her essence; that curiosity and drive that led Reddy to success. Peters may have little to do other than play up to the stereotypes of Jeff, but he finds enough within the character to create a handful of moments which allows him to shine as an actor. It’s McDonald who is the film’s secret weapon. As Lilian, a figure very much deserving of a film in her own right, the actress waltzes off with every scene she’s in thanks to a flair and panache that can’t help but radiate when the film begins to dim.
I Am Woman should make anyone who sees it go and revisit and/or discover the many memorable songs Reddy created. However it’s a shame to think of what a better film re-telling of Reddy’s life could have looked like. The fashion these days when it comes to putting someone’s life story on the screen is to look at a specific point in their overall journey and hone in on it for the majority of the film. This summer’s Shirley did an excellent job following that method as it showed the famously complicated author create the work which would cement her reputation as a literary force of nature. Perhaps a similar take here where we see Helen create her debut album as she wrestles with motherhood, Jeff and embraces her feminist sensibilities could have been a more diverting experience. Still, what we have here isn’t bad. It just isn’t special. And Helen Reddy was most certainly that.