Her song became an anthem for a feminist movement hungry to be heard. But what else do you know about Helen Reddy? The new biopic I Am Woman revels in the triumphs and reveals the tribulations of the Australian singer who spoke for a generation of American women. Shame it doesn’t dare to be as revolutionary as its subject.
Written by Emma Jensen and directed by Unjoo Moon, I Am Woman begins with Reddy’s move to America after winning a contest that promised her a record deal. A divorcee with a toddler in tow, Helen (a graceful yet sharp Tilda Cobham-Hervey) thought this was her easy street to stardom, but learns fast the duplicities of the record industry. Nonetheless, she soon falls for Jeff Wald (a smarmy Evan Peters), a swaggering manager who swears he can make her a star. The two get involved professionally and romantically and move from New York to Los Angeles to chase their dreams. However, success won’t come easy for this songstress who must combat sexism to make her mark. Along the way, her music becomes the soundtrack to feminists fighting for the passage of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment).
On paper, I Am Woman might sound like a poignant tale of politics and empowerment. In execution, it’s pretty damn dull.
Part of the problem is that Jensen’s script trades in tedious clichés. Montages of record charts and flashy gowns race us through Helen’s rise to fame. A ragged cough and snorts of cocaine are limp setups for second act tragedy. To show Helen’s gotten too involved in her career, Jensen offers the expected scene of a petulant daughter sulking about her mother’s lack of attention. To signal fame has changed this star’s priorities, there’s a melodramatic battle between her and her longtime bestie (a boisterous Danielle Macdonald).
Even though I knew next to nothing about Reddy’s life, I was bored early on because Jensen telegraphs plot points so far in advance. For instance, there’s the chess game. While courting, Jeff brings over a board but skulks off once Helen defeats him. When he returns, Jeff wins the rematch, noting he practiced, because “you make me want to be better.” RED FLAG! A dude feeling the need to dominate his date at a board game does not suggest her influence is making him a better man! It suggests he’s a faux-feminist douche-bro who will ultimately mean trouble as he will resent her success. Thus, I wasn’t invested in the romance that plays at the core of the film. Instead, I waited impatiently for Helen to notice all the red flags that Jeff was dropping like dirty socks.
Also vexing is how the film handles Reddy’s feminist activism. Helen makes pointed remarks about being paid less than the men in her back-up band. She gently chides Jeff about calling a secretary “sweetheart,” noting, “That’s demeaning.” She calmly challenges record execs who scoff at her relevance and coolly fields condescending questions about how she can be a working musician AND a wife and mother. While these all are elements of the era’s sexism, the artless manner in which they are presented makes them feel like a checklist instead of an escalation in narrative. Intercutting them with archival footage of feminist marches does little to provide oomph. And if you know what came of the ERA push, it’s not exactly gripping or inspiring.
The only times the film came alive for me were when Helen faces the press. In these moments, she f*cks politeness and speaks with a frankness that is exhilarating. That you get to see Jeff panic about the potential blowback feels like an illicit thrill. Then, there’s the recreation of her Grammy win, where she subversively declared, “And I’d like to thank God, because she makes everything possible.” In these moments, we’re finally getting a sense of the fire that must have burned inside the woman who threw a baby on her hip and moved to a new country to chase her dream of stardom. Perhaps more of this fire could have been explored if I Am Woman were interested at all in Reddy’s life before America. Maybe it could have played with the timeline or used music video style spectacle to create something as daring as Reddy’s music felt at the time. As it is, the film feels instantly dated and dull, trading in tropes and a straight-faced, stodgily paced telling that feels more like a Wikipedia entry than cinema.
In short: if you’re interested in the story of Helen Reddy’s rise to fame, I Am Woman delivers. Just don’t come hoping for anything else.
I Am Woman opens in limited theatrical release and On-Demand on September 11.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.