I Am Woman Review
1966: Having just won a talent contest on the Australian television show Bandstand, for her prize Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) travels to New York for a record audition, three-year-old daughter Traci in tow. However, she’s brushed off by the company – no-one is interested in female solo singers any more, it’s all groups. Hasn’t she heard of a band called The Beatles? On the point of returning to Australia, Helen, is encouraged by fellow Australian Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), one of the few female music journalists in the business at the time, to stay on. Playing tiny gigs to audiences barely into double figures, Reddy is close to having to return home, but then she meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), a manager who numbered Deep Purple and Tiny Tim among the acts he represented. He becomes her manager and later her husband, and they remained together for 13 years as she grew into a successful artist during the '70s.
The song this film is named after reached number one in the US charts, and soon became an anthem for the feminist movement. (The then decades-old and still ongoing attempt to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment of the US Constitution takes place in the background of the film.) The song didn’t chart in the UK, where her biggest hit was “Angie Baby”, which reached number five in early 1975 (a ten-year-old me watched it on Top of the Pops at the time) and was also a US number one. Both songs and others are performed in this film, with Chelsea Cullen providing Reddy’s singing voice.
I Am Woman follows the familiar shape of a music biopic, though it doesn’t quite fall into the trap of assuming that someone’s personal life is more interesting than the work that attract us to them in the first place. In two hours, there isn’t space for everything: Traci grows up rapidly before our eyes, and a blink-and-miss-it shot of Reddy with a pregnancy bump is followed by that child being a son called Jordan, aged ten. Although the not always harmonious relationship between Reddy and Wald (exacerbated by amongst other things his drugs problems) is dealt with in some detail, for more than half of the film the emphasis and interest is more on a sustaining friendship between two women, Helen and Lilian. A sudden asthma attack killed Lilian in 1973, which becomes a turning point, and after that we skip forward to 1982, and finally to 1989 when Traci persuades her mother to come out of retirement to sing “I Am Woman” one more time at a Washington rally held by the National Organization for Women. And with that, the film ends.
It's familiar stuff, and due to the involvement of Reddy’s family, no doubt the authorised version. (Reddy was in a care home with dementia when the film was made, but she did see the finished product and sang along to it.) Some of the dialogue, especially that relating to the dismissals and patronisation Reddy receives, is a little on the nose, but that does reflect the level of sexism in American society at the time. But familiar elements done well can and do work, and I Am Woman, a debut feature from director Unjoo Moon, written by Emma Jensen, does work. It’s enlivened by two performances in particular. Danielle Macdonald is in-fact Australian, though this is her first Australian feature – though that said, this is an Australian film where not a single scene takes place in the country. The film loses a little something when she leaves it, an hour and a quarter in.
But if I Am Woman is anyone’s showcase, it’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s, and she is utterly convincing (even if it’s a little obvious that she’s around the same age Reddy was at the start of the film so has had to be made up to be the fortysomething Helen later on). Although she doesn’t actually sing, she certainly mimes convincingly. The cinematography by Dion Beebe (the director’s husband) sometimes puts Cobham-Hervey or Macdonald into archive footage. I Am Woman was denied a planned cinema release in Australia due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, so it premiered on the streaming service Stan.
In memory of Helen Reddy (1941-2020): Helen Reddy died on September 29, aged 78.
I Am Woman plays in UK cinemas and on digital platforms from October 9.