By 1973, Australian singer Helen Reddy had experienced a little of everything in trying to follow one’s dream. A resident without a visa, taking care of a young daughter, looking for her American breakthrough. It just so happened to come from years of her voice being suppressed, and a need for all womankind to stand up and challenge the world at large. It was an anthem, with a simple, triumphant message. That framework sets up what we see in I Am Woman, a rather long-overdue biopic of Reddy and her inadvertent crusade, one that will most please fans, though confuse casual newcomers.
We start with Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in a late-60s New York, the counterculture thick and soupy as she attempts to pitch her voice to the label manager at Mercury (David Lyons in an all-too-brief cameo). Trapped performing generic love songs to small club audiences making less than her male bandmates, she finds a niche, and eventually a soul mate in talent agency hotshot Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). Though as the rejections pile up, he fears she’s too soft for rock. Alice Cooper said it best back then, declaring her the “Queen of Housewife Rock.” It’s through Jeff’s later persistence that she’s in the studio recording an album for Capitol. Her stirring rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” serves as mild foreshadowing, preparing us for the dark path Jeff sinks down toward, making no small light of his drug addiction and financial mismanagement. But of course, it’s “I Am Woman” that helps to maintain focus, as we see the song evolve from Helen’s written frustration into a chart-topping anthem for the 70s Women’s Lib movement.
As director Unjoo Moon (The Zen of Bennett) and writer Emma Jensen (Mary Shelley) carry us through each career milestone, we do slowly drift a little further away, though thankfully not completely from the point of the film. It is still very much Reddy’s story to tell, Cobham-Hervey nailing down the integrity, passion, and bubbled whimsy of the legendary singer. She just has to share the time with Peters, who’s as much a passionate performer portraying a classic bigwig, until the train wreck aspect collides with his business sense, and we see just where their personal relationship takes a turn for the worst. A major event that only brings Reddy to dig deep and persevere regardless. Ditto for her greatest ally, journalist turned inspirational music author Lillian Roxon (Patti Cakes’ Danielle Macdonald), facing her own triad but always coming through for her friends.
Moon is a confident director, handling this true musician’s rise with near accuracy, and mostly letting the music speak for itself. The film’s showstoppers had me bopping in my chair throughout. Nothing unfamiliar for Moon’s husband, cinematographer Dion Beebe, whose work with Rob Marshall and others made him a determined asset to bring mere lyrics off just about any page. All while editor Dany Cooper (Breathe) effortlessly intertwines elements together with craftsman level skill.
The fact Cobham-Hervey cannot lend her own singing voice is concerning, however. Instead, it’s that of Aussie born indie-pop singer Chelsea Cullen, who captures Reddy’s bouncy, near gravelly intonations down to the letter. Delightful as she is to hear, it’s a bit of a cop-out especially if the actress playing Helen has the look, and the personality fully accurate. The acting illusion is rendered nearly spotless, settling on decent. Much like the entire film, punctuating the idea of empowerment, at the risk of depreciating its worth as a definitive portrayal of the singer’s life story. Skipping the writing controversy of the title track, jumping past years’ worth of material, and perhaps not going gritty enough on the marital strife. The chemistry is there, but the emotional drive is stunted, with Peters’ spin on a messed-up Hollywood agent turning formulaic by the end at best. It’s just difficult to take a downturn as seriously as they play it out, only to find it lack momentum and third-party observation.
If I Am Woman had spoken more to Reddy’s life story, or to her prevalent fight against 70s sexism by way of speaking more to the culture than just her perspective, or if they’d gotten deeper into each character’s emotional irks, I’d have found it easier to enjoy. With that said, I had an easy time getting swept up in that music, and in Cobham-Hervey being the modern-day reawakening of Reddy as both a pop icon and a popular figure. It’s just painfully imbalanced to declare it the most complete film portrait of such a talented, inspiring name. I could probably quibble deeper but seeing as it is the first true biopic of Miss Reddy’s grand journey, complaints can only go so far. I still enjoyed it, even if the deeper meaning around it feels jumbled up. It’s still there, to triumph over gender oppression, and break free from the norm to be both strong, and invincible. When it can be found, then the musical fun will be far more fluid to thrive in. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up)
I Am Woman is available online this weekend; film not rated; 116 minutes.