There should be a warning issued with this bio-pic of singer, Helen Reddy: after the film you’ll be humming I Am Woman for the next week or so. This might sound harmless enough, but in the wrong context it could raise uncomfortable questions about masculine identity.
Reddy’s unofficial anthem for the women’s movement is easily the best thing this movie has going for it. Take away the rousing choruses of I Am Woman, and there’s not a lot left. I really wanted to like this portrait of a star who probably enjoyed more success in America than any other Australian performer, but Unjoo Moon’s debut feature is a soap opera. If it were argued this is actually the true story of Reddy’s life, then it’s a shame her life resembled a soap opera so closely.
It didn’t of course. The deficiencies of the movie lie in the story-telling, in a plodding and predictable script, and that deplorable tactic of underlining every dramatic moment with a tinkle on the piano or a plaintive twang of the guitar. Even if people were walking clichés in the 70s, it’s best not to portray them as such.
But perhaps the biggest problem with I Am Woman is that it tries to tell two stories simultaneously. On one hand we have the classic rags-to-riches-to-rags showbiz drama, on the other the rise of women’s liberation, for which Reddy becomes an avatar. Every obstacle she has to overcome is seen through the lens of gender politics, making her experiences representative of the female condition, and her success an inspiration to the sisterhood. Somewhere along the line Reddy the individual gets lost, and we are left with a colourless character.
It’s presumably true that Reddy turned up for her first meeting with a record company in New York, to be told they were only interested in boy bands. It’s equally credible that when record executives first heard I Am Woman, they didn’t want to release a song they thought sounded too “angry”. These are obvious instances of male narrowness and sexism. Yet the story gains little from a running media commentary on the progress of the Equal Rights Amendment that burbles along in the background.
The saga of the ERA has been told, in all its comedy, drama and complexity in the series, Mrs. America. In this bio pic the references are thin and stagey.
In the opening scenes Reddy arrives in New York as a single mum with a three-year-old daughter, fresh from winning an Australian talent quest. After getting the brush-off at the record company she sets up camp in a seedy hotel and sings in a largely empty club, where the members of the band earn more than she does (“because they’ve got families to feed”). Her friend and solace is Aussie journalist, Lillian Roxon, dubbed “the mother of rock”, played by Danielle Macdonald, who seems a little too young and fresh-faced for the part.
Reddy’s life changes when she meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who will become her husband and manager. They move to Los Angeles, where Jeff has promised to make Helen a star, although he settles for letting her play the housewife. Her initial breakthrough, with a single of I Don’t Know How to Love him, from Jesus Christ Superstar, owes as much to her own persistence with Jeff as to his ability to sell her talents. We’d never guess, from this film, that the song was actually issued as a B-side.
Soon afterwards she sits down to write the lyrics of I Am Woman, and success arrives like a tidal wave. Because Reddy is portrayed as a solo genius we never meet the Australian guitarist, Ray Burton, who wrote the music.
Our heroine’s rise to fame is dealt with in speedy fashion. The only reason we know Reddy had her own TV show is that a clip flashes past, as part of a hectic montage. We also get lots of footage of feminist protests, as if Reddy’s career were organically linked to the women’s movement. This may seem plausible if she had only sung I Am Woman, over and over again, but there was a motley collection of other hits, such as Delta Dawn, Leave Me Alone and Angie Baby, all of which get lengthy airings in this film, although they sound pretty lame today.
The spine of the story is Helen’s relationship with Jeff, which deteriorates due to his cocaine abuse and personality disorders, even as her celebrity soars. There are echoes of A Star is Born, with the alpha male being eclipsed by the woman he considers his creation. For the viewer it’s only a matter of waiting for the inevitable crack-up, and the equally inevitable line: “I can’t do this any more.”
Tilda Cobham-Hervey does her best in the lead role but her version of Reddy seems uptight and self-possessed. There’s not much resemblance to the natural, confident figure one sees in the TV excerpts, or in the old black-and-white clip of I Am Woman, in which Reddy strolls across a field wearing flares and a knitted tank top. It has to be one of the most down-market pop videos of all time. I rather wish they’d equipped Cobham-Hervey with a tank top and sent her wandering across a paddock on a sunny day. It would have been more sympathetic than all that creaky melodrama and feminist memoranda.
One gets the impression that Unjoo Moon and scriptwriter, Emma Jensen, are great fans of Helen Reddy, but it’s the kind of of fandom that diminishes its object of affection by portraying her as an all-too-human blend of vulnerability and ambition. When a singer is known for announcing: “I am strong, I am invincible!”, that’s the way she deserves to be remembered.
I Am Woman
Directed by Unjoo Moon
Written by Emma Jensen
Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Coco Greenstone, Molly Broadstock
Australia, rated M, 117 mins
Streaming on Stan
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 September, 2020