Helen Reddy is just about the least likely candidate for a biopic, outside of maybe England Dan and John Ford Coley. The Australian singer was a major deal in the 1970s, although not everyone took her seriously at the time, and unlike similar artists of the day (Olivia Newton-John, for example), young people today don't really know who she is. If you were around in that decade, though, you doubtlessly remember Reddy's incredible string of hit records. I Am Woman posits that her career – represented by the success of the once-ubiquitous song of the title – was a major advancement for feminism.
Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) plays Reddy, who comes to America after winning a contest that allows her to audition for a major record label. It's the late '60s, and the Beatles have set the world on fire, so the label has no interest in signing a woman when they can sign the next potential Fab Four instead. She's prepared to give up, but her best friend, music journalist Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), encourages her to keep plugging away. Reddy's fate changes when she meets manager/future husband Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). He promises that they'll make her a star together. Soon, she's getting hit records.
Energized by the women's rights marches occurring across the country, Reddy eventually writes a song called “I Am Woman.” The record label hates it, and the tune earns criticism for being “housewife rock.” Nevertheless, it becomes nothing short of an anthem for women everywhere, earning her a Grammy Award. Success of that scale comes with a downside, of course. Wald's cocaine problem puts a strain on the marriage, while the pressures of being a woman in the male-dominated music business continue in spite of a #1 hit.
I Am Woman is frankly a Cliff's Notes version of Helen Reddy's story. You can feel writer Emma Jensen contorting notable events from the subject's life to fit into a traditional biopic template. In its weakest moments, the dialogue sounds exactly like the exposition it is. That's not to say there aren't good points. The look at how the music industry of the '70s was dismissive of women is potent, as are many of the scenes of marital strife between Reddy and Wald.
The movie's strongest asset is Tilda Cobham-Hervey. Let's be honest: Helen Reddy was never the kind of magnetic or visually exciting performer that other recent biopic subjects Elton John (Rocketman) and Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody) were. In other words, the actress can't rely on flashy costumes or exaggerated behavior to make the character compelling. She instead crafts a three-dimensional performance that makes Reddy precisely what she was – a talented singer who sensed that an under-served audience would appreciate what she had to offer.
Peters and Macdonald offer strong supporting work, and director Unjoo Moon wisely doesn't overdo it with the musical numbers. She keeps things visually interesting, yet not so flashy that the substance of the songs gets lost. I Am Woman certainly isn't in the same category as Ray, Walk the Line, or What's Love Got to Do with It. It is, however, a reasonably entertaining film for people who remember Helen Reddy and the way her signature song inspired millions of American woman in their fight for equality.
out of four
I Am Woman is unrated, but contains adult language and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.