THE STORY – Helen Reddy’s popular song “I Am Woman” becomes an anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s.
THE CAST – Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Danielle Macdonald & Evan Peters
THE TEAM – Unjoo Moon (Director) & Emma Jensen (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
There have been so many biopics of musicians over the years that they’ve all started to feel the same. Humble beginnings, scrappy rise, getting used by family/friends/lovers/managers, downward slide into addiction/irrelevance, redemptive comeback. The lyrics may change, but the melody stays the same. So whenever a new one gets made, the question must be asked: Why? For Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic, “I Am Woman,” that part is clear. With women reasserting themselves in the wake of #MeToo, Reddy’s women’s liberation anthem has seen a resurgence in popularity. It’s only natural, then, for people to be curious about the woman who co-wrote and sang it. Unfortunately, Moon’s film plays by all the standard musician biopic rules and offers precious little insight into Reddy’s life other than that her now ex-husband and manager, Jeff Wald, was a real piece of shit.
Helen (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) arrives in New York City in 1966 with her three-year-old daughter in tow. She had won a talent contest in her native Australia, and her prize was an audition for a record contract in New York. But when the record company turns her down, she’s all alone and with very little money. Through fellow Aussie expat and rock critic Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), she meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), a wannabe manager at William Morris. He quickly becomes Helen’s lover and then-husband, and then manager. They move to Los Angeles where Jeff becomes the manager for Tiny Tim, Sylvester Stallone, and the band Deep Purple…but doesn’t get any work for Helen until she forces him to do so. This time, she gets a record contract and becomes a huge star.
The “biopic 101” nature of the screenplay would be a lot for any film to overcome, but director Unjoo Moon offers little more than a zippy pace. That pace makes it more difficult to lose interest in the film as it goes through the motions, but it doesn’t help the feeling that so much of Reddy’s life is being glossed over. Indeed, even a cursory scan through the Wikipedia pages for Reddy and the title song offers more insight than this film does. However, the one thing Moon does get right is a pretty big one: She casts a fantastic lead and showcases her as often as she can.
While she comes off a little stiff in the early scenes, Cobham-Hervey grows into the role of Helen over the course of the film. Each scene is better than the last, and while her lip-syncing is regrettably off, her charisma is always spot on. She finds the exact right pitch to play the big scenes, heightening the emotions just enough to play well on film without ever going overboard. Even when the film around her falters, Cobham-Hervey remains ever watchable.
And, oh, does that film ever falter. The great cinematographer Dion Beebe falls back on all his stage lighting tricks to make sure the performance scenes look great, but elsewhere, the gauzy soft focus and muted colors make this feel even more like a Lifetime movie than the script does. The moments where the film shifts from Reddy’s television appearances to the film’s recreation of them are particularly poor, making the film look cheap. Even performers as talented and versatile as Macdonald and Peters struggle with the dialogue – which in some scenes sounds like it comes from the pages of a women’s studies textbook as opposed to the mouths of actual people engaging in conversation. But through it all, Cobham-Hervey commands your attention. What the script fails to include about Helen’s story, she does her level best to convey in her performance. She doesn’t always succeed, but when she does, she roars with a force too big to ignore. She’s strong, and it’s a pity the film around her is far from invincible.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An excellent performance from Tilda Cobham-Hervey.
THE OSCARS – None