‘I Am Woman’: Uplifting Biopic Tells the Story of Singer and Feminist Icon Helen Reddy
The story of the woman behind one of the most iconic songs of the ’70s is brought to life in the inspiring musical biopic “I Am Woman.” Rising Australian actor Tilda Cobham-Hervey shines as Helen Reddy, the singer-songwriter whose 1972 hit “I Am Woman” not only snagged her a Grammy, but also made her a hero of the second-wave feminist movement.
The film starts off in 1966, when Reddy first arrives in New York. At 24, she has already been divorced and has a three-year-old daughter, Traci, who has come with her from Sydney, Australia. Led to believe that she has come clear across the world to a record, she gets the brush off from a music executive who tells her that male groups like the Beatles are all the rage. Determined, she decides to stay in NYC, and almost immediately she faces discrimination from a club owner who exploits the fact that she doesn’t have a work permit and tells her she doesn’t deserve the same pay as male musicians because “they have families to support,” completely unsympathetic to the fact that she is a single mom.
Around this time, Helen connects with a fellow Aussie, then-aspiring rock music journalist Lillian Roxon (the always superb Danielle Macdonald). The two become fast friends, and it is at a rent party thrown by Lillian for Helen that Helen meets her future husband, then-aspiring manager Jeff Wald (Even Peters). Before long, he whisks her and Traci out of their roast-infested hotel and out to sunny Los Angeles with promises to make her a star. Unfortunately, he becomes too preoccupied with his male clients, and Helen finds herself living the kind of unsatisfying housewife existence Betty Friedan wrote about in “The Feminine Mystique.” But out of this monotony comes creative inspiration, and after delivering Jeff an ultimatum, he finally pushes to get her foot in the door at Capitol Records.
After her first single “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” becomes a hit on the radio, Helen pens “I Am Woman,” inspired not only by the growing feminist movement that Lillian has alerted her to, but also by the trials of her daughter. Predictably, the men at the record company, including executive Artie Mogull (Chris Parnell), find the twangy number too angry and even man-hating. Fortunately, the woman at Helen’s shows thinks otherwise, and through the power of radio requests, it’s not long before “I Am Woman” becomes a cultural phenomenon.
Every decent music biopic in recent memories has dealt with addiction, and while Helen herself doesn’t even drink, Jeff and Lillian have their share of demons. Much of the focus is on Jeff, an otherwise intelligent man and savvy manager whose hot temper and growing dependency on cocaine prevents him from reaching his full potential, and, even worse, threatens Helen, not only her career, but also the quality of life for herself and her children. Director Unjoo Moon and screenwriter Emma Jensen do a great job of exploring this aspect of Reddy’s life and showing how even a woman who becomes a symbol of strong womanhood can be victimized by her spouse.
Just like the acclaimed limited series “Mrs. America” that debuted earlier this year, “I Am Woman” tracks the progress of the Equal Rights Amendment, and Helen’s highs and lows correlate with the highs and lows of the pro-ERA movement. Although she only appears through archival footage, anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly is a villainous presence, reminding us how much damage a vocal minority can do.
Lastly, there’s the music, and although Cobham-Hervey doesn’t actually sing — Australian pop singer Chelsea Cullen provides the vocals — she exudes strength onstage as well as off. Moon reminds us that Reddy had an illustrious career and hits beyond “I Am Woman,” and the soundtrack includes upbeat and stirring numbers such as “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby.”
“I Am Woman” releases Sept. 11 on VOD.