‘I Am Woman’ review: Helen Reddy biopic purrs, but can’t manage a roar

The Aussie music legend behind feminism's defining anthem sadly died last week

This biopic of Helen Reddy, the Australian pop singer who wrote and performed the defining song of the women’s liberation movement, 1971’s ‘I Am Woman’, arrives with incredibly poignant timing. Reddy, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2015 and spent her final years in a nursing home for professional entertainers, died last week at the age of 78. I Am Woman offers a welcome reminder of a career that now feels rather undervalued, perhaps because Reddy’s polished soft rock sound was unfashionable even at the time: Alice Cooper famously branded her “the Queen of Housewife Rock”. But sadly, director Unjoo Moon never really gets under Reddy’s skin enough to convey what drove her as a performer. She also fails to confront why the politically-charged ‘I Am Woman’ was actually a bit of an anomaly in Reddy’s generally wholesome catalogue.

The film begins with Melbourne-born Reddy (Hotel Mumbai’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey) arriving in New York City with her young daughter Traci (Scout Bowman) to pursue a recording career. A label which had promised her a contract backs out, leaving Reddy singing in half-empty cocktail bars to make ends meet. Pretty soon she meets two people who will hugely influence her career: music journalist Lillian Roxon (Patti Cake$Danielle Macdonald), who introduces her to the Women’s Liberation Movement, and budding music manager Jeff Wald (American Horror Story‘s Evan Peters). After they become a couple, Wald convinces Reddy to relocate to LA for the sake of their careers, a move which pays off when Capitol Records exec Artie Mogull (Chris Parnell) finally agrees to let Reddy cut a one-off single. Her version of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from Jesus Christ Superstar becomes a hit after Wald spams the request lines of the first radio station that plays it, and Reddy is well on her way to stardom.

I Am Woman
Aussie music legend Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) sadly died last week. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

Moon canters through much of Reddy’s career with such brisk efficiency that a multitude of questions are left unanswered. Though we see Reddy clashing with her label over ‘I Am Woman’, which Mogull dismisses chauvinistically as “angry”, there’s never any real insight into her musical taste beyond the fact she doesn’t like Deep Purple, another act Wald manages. Moon drops in archive footage from women’s lib marches, which underlines why ‘I Am Woman’ struck such a chord, but never explores why Reddy is catching glimpses on TV rather than taking part herself. It doesn’t help that Emma Jensen’s screenplay is both cheesy and clumsy. A couple of clanging references to David Bowie – a ‘70s rock contemporary, but one who has little in common with Reddy – feel especially unnecessary.

By the time I Am Woman descends into familiar rock biopic territory – Wald becomes a coke addict and blows all their money – it’s hard to shake the feeling you’re watching a TV movie with some above-average ‘70s period details. Helen Reddy was surely a more interesting figure than this well-intentioned but hollow biopic ever gets her credit for.

Details

  • Director: Unjoo Moon
  • Starring: Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Tilda Cobham-Hervey
  • Release date: October 9
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