Film & Television

‘I Am Woman’ — Not as Strong as it Might Have Been

Editor’s Note:

After we published this review, we learned with sorrow that Helen Reddy passed away at age 78 after living for several years with dementia. Her record-breaking accomplishments — including writing and performing her powerful anthem to women’s rights — will long outlive her. May she rest in peace and power.

 

There’s nothing quite like music to take you back to a younger age, a long-lost relationship, or a forgotten memory. Or, in the case of “I Am Woman,” by Helen Reddy, an entire movement. 

The song, written in 1971 and released in 1972, became the anthem for second-wave feminism. It sold over a million copies, became the first number one Billboard hit by an Australian, and won the Grammy for Best Female Performance, beating legends Carly Simon, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, and Barbra Streisand. In her acceptance speech, Reddy thanked God, “because she makes everything possible.”

I Am Woman is now a feature-film biopic, directed by Unjoo Moon, written by Emma Jensen, and starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Danielle Macdonald, and Evan Peters. Like all musician biopics (and we’ve seen several in the last few years, from Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman on screen, to Beautiful, Tina, and The Cher Show on Broadway), I Am Woman attempts to give us the story behind the chart-topper. The premise is always: You may think you know them through their music, but here’s what you didn’t know.

The problem with I Am Woman is this: There isn’t much there there.

The film begins in 1966 when single mother Reddy (Cobham-Hervey) arrives in New York City. She’s won a singing contest in Australia, and has come to claim her prize: a recording contract with Mercury Records. The sexist and condescending executive (he seems to think her first name is “Sweetheart”) explains that she won an audition, not a contract. “So, when do I audition?” she asks. “You already have,” he explains. Mercury isn’t interested in female singers; they’re looking for boy bands. He laughs. “You’ve heard of the Beatles?”

Broke, undocumented, and with three-year-old Traci in tow, Reddy lives in a roach-infested hotel and sings at a seedy nightclub, where she’s paid less than the band. She reluctantly looks up a fellow Australian expat, journalist Lillian Roxon (Macdonald), who makes a living writing about beauty secrets but is collecting material for the first rock and roll encyclopedia. Through Macdonald, Reddy meets wannabe manager Jeff Wald (Peters), currently working in the mailroom at William Morris. After a quick romance, he persuades Reddy to move with him to L.A. “You’ll be the star,” he tells her. “I’ll be the business.”

At this point, I Am Woman began to lose me. Cobham-Hervey is luminous (and lip-synchs flawlessly to Reddy songs rerecorded for the film by pop singer Chelsea Cullen). Macdonald continues her impressive ascent (she starred as aspiring rap artist PattiCake$ and was the most sympathetic rape victim in Unbelievable). But Peters is altogether too sleazy from the very start. It might be the tough-guy New York accent, or his greasy hair — or, maybe I’ve just seen him in too many seasons of American Horror Story. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to believe that Reddy falls for Wald’s empty promises so quickly and completely. He seems exactly like the kind of manipulative husband-manager we’ve met before in, frankly, better films like What’s Love Got to Do with It. It isn’t hard to imagine his abusing her, stealing her money, and succumbing to a devastating drug addiction.

Once he is in California, Wald’s star rises (he manages Tiny Tim and eventually Sylvester Stallone) while Reddy plays the reluctant housewife. Through sheer stubbornness, she finally coerces Wald to persuade his contacts at Capitol Records to let her record a single. The B-side, a cover of Jesus Christ Superstar’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” becomes her first hit.

Meanwhile, Roxon has become a passionate participant in the women’s liberation movement. Inspired by her friend, Reddy pens the first lines of “I Am Woman” in her sleeping daughter’s room. In a rather amusing scene, the (all-male) executives at Capitol declare it “angry” and “man-hating,” but agree to “bury it” on her upcoming album. When you stop and think about the song’s utterly affirming lyrics, you have to wonder what that same group of decision-makers would have thought about the truly angry lyrics of later artists like Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, or Courtney Love.

From this point, the movie shifts into high gear, and some twenty years of the star’s career go by in a blur. Reddy becomes a recording phenomenon, turning out additional hits like “Delta Dawn,” “Angie Baby,” and “That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady.” She’s celebrated, rich, and famous. Wald rides on her coattails and (no surprise) develops a debilitating cocaine habit. She hosts television specials and takes on a residency at Las Vegas. Her children (no surprise) resent her absence. Finally, Reddy is shocked to learn that Wald has depleted their assets and they’re (again, no surprise) essentially broke. Their marriage is over, and the next time we see Reddy, she’s retired. 

In a sweet scene, her now-grown daughter Traci persuades her to perform one last time at a march for women where multiple generations join her in triumphantly declaring:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am invincible
(Invincible)
I am woman

The movie ends, as many (most these days?) do, with photos of the real people we’ve just seen portrayed, where they are now, and what they’re doing.

Overall, I Am Woman is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. But it lacks the drama and depth of other rockstar biopics. During her most successful years, Reddy’s signature sound was described, dismissively, as “housewife rock” by none other than Alice Cooper. Moon’s film does little to contradict him. Reddy’s life depicted here, even at its most glamorous, is not all that interesting. 

The movie does have a handful of elements working in its favor. The cast is uniformly good (even Peters, who, if anything, is a too convincing creep). Australian actress Cobham-Hervey, probably best known for Hotel Mumbai, is compelling as Reddy, and particularly lovely to watch whenever her character is onstage. At just twenty-six, born long after Reddy’s heyday, the actress admits she had to do some homework. As she explained to EW, “I’m very ashamed to say I didn’t know much about her. I knew the song ‘I Am Woman,’ of course, I knew Helen Reddy’s name. But I did not know much about her life. It was such a joy to be able to learn about her; it had such an impact on me personally, and I’m just so excited about sharing her story with the world.”

Besides the talented cast, I Am Woman benefits from Reddy’s music itself. If the point of the film was to bring out a more interesting side of a popular celebrity, the results are only so-so. But, if Moon and her team aimed to renew interest in the artist’s body of work, it succeeds brilliantly. The first thing I did after the credits rolled was look for clips of the real Reddy and her powerful anthem. 

“I Am Woman,” the song if not the film, resonates as much today with — and this is the real surprise — genuine equality between the sexes still so elusive fifty years later.

I Am Woman is available to rent from Amazon.

 

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