1970s Pop Star Helen Reddy Biopic ‘I Am Woman’ Quickly Loses its Intended Feminist Message

A still from 'I Am Woman' Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) stands on a stage, the camera shoots her from behind, so that you can see an adoring audience beneath her. They are clapping as Helen holds the microphone to her mouth. She is wearing 1970s clothes: green opaque flares and a strappy top. She has short hair.
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It is New York in the 1960s and Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) has just arrived from Sydney with her young daughter in tow. Living in a cheap cockroach riddled hotel room, her dream is to sign a record contract but execs believe female singers have had their day. All she has for support in the male-dominated industry is fellow Aussie and now iconic music journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle MacDonald).

I Am Woman has found a valuable asset in lead Cobnam-Hervey. She is effortlessly likeable as Reddy, a singer who lacks the larger than life character many other music biopic stars have. She wears the chic 70s outfits well, capturing the willowy stage swagger of the Australian. The ageing as the film progresses is done subtlety, with help from hair and makeup. Her vocals are mostly dubbed by Chelsea Cullen, alongside original recordings of the Australian singer. Although Cullen does a good job of Reddy’s nasally but warm tone, there is a clear distinction between her and the original recordings.

MacDonald is a big presence in I Am Woman. Lillian is a free-spirited music writer, ahead of her time but you feel like her story is so much more than a supporting character in this biopic. From her conscious coughs and the musical cues, it’s clear where her story is going. Lillian here deserves a biopic of her own. She wrote the first rock encyclopaedia, socialised with Andy Warhol and was close friends with Linda McCartney. She is more than a character to bulk up Helen’s feminist ideas.

Her career is in the doldrums of cabaret performance and empty restaurants when she meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). A talent agent, he becomes her second husband and whisks her away to Los Angeles to make her a star. It all appears a ruse to make her a stay at home wife, whilst he helps develop bands like Deep Purple. Suddenly, with one song (I Am Woman, her hit the film is named after) and some calls to a local radio station, she’s a star. Despite an ever fantastic performance from Peters, Wald is a stock biopic character. He starts cute and trustworthy, before becoming a twitchy coke addict whose erratic behaviour threatens Reddy’s career. I Am Woman pulls back just before Wald gets too “Behind the Music”, but it’s a close call.

A still from 'I Am Woman'. Lillian Roxon (Danielle MacDonald) and Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) are shown in close-up here. Helen is resting her head on Lillian's shoulder. Lillian has short bouncy blonde hair and is chubby in the face, with a smoky eye makeup and 1970s black shirt. Helen has cropped ginger hair and a fresh-faced look, wearing a green jumper. The pair look content.
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There are several enjoyable, extended scenes of Reddy’s performances captured with a retro authenticity by award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe. These include two performances of I Am Woman plus many recognisable covers that are intercut with rapturous applause by empowered women of all races and ages. Unlike other recent biopics, the songs are played straight, a joy for fans of the singer’s music but tiresome for the casual listener. Beebe perfectly captures the essence of the scene from run down 60s New York to the breezy Canyon Valley of California.

Debuting feature director Unjoo Moon and writer Emma Jensen, who drew from Reddy’s memoir The Woman I Am, pushes a little too much to connect her biggest hit I Am Woman with the current #MeToo movement. Archival footage is weaved smartly into the film. Most notably when Cobnam-Hervey thanks God after winning a Grammy “because she makes everything possible.” The feminist angle is also propped up by showing Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic Party presidential ticket and Phyllis Schlafly’s cold opposition to the ERA (both depicted in Mrs America). Jensen’s script is hardly subtle in packing in the evidence of the patriarchal oppression female singer’s faced at the time. It was all this that caused her to write the feminist anthem I Am Woman, which became the song of the movement.

You can’t help but feel like Reddy was a talented woman whose life isn’t quite worthy enough for a biopic, so Moon had to intertwine the life of Roxon and the women’s liberation movement to give it some edge. By squashing her career into a predictable narrative arc, Emma Jensen loses the empowering feminist tale. Now a film about Lillian Roxon? I’d watch that!

I Am Woman is available in select cinemas and on VOD from September 11th

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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