Don’t see it as a music biopic epic, see it for its leading lady and Helen Reddy hits.
Just as I reviewed a documentary about the rights to votes being given the women and people of race in “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” I came across a music biopic that shows women proving themselves to be strong people, just as the 1970s feminine movement was kicking in.
In the new music biopic “I Am Woman,” Tilda Cobham-Hervey (“Hotel Mumbai”) portrays Helen Reddy, the famous Australian singer, while Chelsea Cullen provides her singing voice. It may find itself in familiar territories with the marriage, the music industry, the drugs, and the obligatory friendship break-ups, but the performances, music, and high spirits should make Helen Reddy fans want to see it for themselves. I was able to ease into the movie, not in the “Rocketman” spirit, but with the ambition that it’s more motivating than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It is.
Told in the late 1960s, the movie begins with Helen taking her little girl Traci (later played by Molly Broadstock) from Australia to New York City to pursue her music career. She was also friends with the Australian journalist Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who would eventually write “Lilian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia,” and moves to Los Angeles with her future husband Jeff Ward (Evan Peters), who would also become her manager. He promised her he’d get her in the music industry, but he can’t get any music label to hire her, and he succumbs to the stereotype that men are dominant, and women have to wait on them hand and foot. But she has the balls to make him set up a music deal for her.
One of her songs is “I Am Woman,” which reminds women of the intelligence and courage they have. It becomes laughed at by a male chauvinist pig record producer (Chris Parnell), but it becomes a success, because it served as an anthem for the second-wave feminism movement. And as her music career soars, she goes through the highs and lows of her life.
Cobham-Hervey provides a searing, emotional, and spontaneous performance as Helen Reddy, when she argues with her husband, determines to make it big, and give as much empathy for her family and friends. The scene when she finds out that Lilian Roxon died from asthma attack, and the last thing they did was argue, it really made me feel bad for her. And she’s able to lip-sync the lyrics with Cullen having an uplifting voice for the music segments.
The scenes when Jeff does cocaine and acts like a jerk to Helen are too predictable for me to praise, but I am at least grateful that Peters acts outside his comfort zone, and delivers the Bronx accent, anger, and vulnerabilities. And even if we don’t get much basis for Lilian Roxon, Macdonald is quite charming as the journalist (1932-1973). They’re both able to connect with the leading lady in their own likable ways.
“I Am Woman” is the first feature film from director Unjoo Moon, who also made the documentary “The Zen of Bennett.” She doesn’t give Helen Reddy’s story the pig-headed, money-making taste Bryan Singer gave to Freddie Mercury’s in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She and writer Emma Jensen (“Mary Shelley”) are both able to remind music fans about the motivation that Reddy provided for women across the country, and it serves as another reminder of what the can do in society. Hear her roar. Believe me, she’s loud.