Greetings again from the darkness. Does penning and recording a feminist anthem warrant a film biopic? Well, when the singer is Helen Reddy and the song is “I Am Woman”, the answer is a resounding yes. This is director Unjoo Moon’s first narrative feature film, and she is working with a script from Emma Jensen (MARY SHELLEY, 2017). As with any biopic, its effectiveness comes down to the lead performance. Here, Tilda Cobham-Hervey is both strong and invincible as Ms. Reddy.
We first see a wide-eyed Helen Reddy walking through New York City clutching the hand of her very young daughter Traci after arriving from Australia in 1966. She’s in pursuit of a recording contract, but instead ends up singing at a mostly empty nightclub and living in a roach-infested rundown hotel. It takes almost no time for her to experience multiple instances of sexism and chauvinism. With no prospects for a better life, Helen meets up with fellow ex-pat Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, PATTI CAKE$, 2017), a journalist who shows her the town and offers her friendship.
Lilian throws a party for Helen, and after locking eyes across the room, Helen meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”), an up and coming agent at William Morris. By 1968, Wald has convinced Helen that Los Angeles is the place to kick off her singing career, and along with Traci, they move into a beautiful home and fill it with typical California dreaming. Jeff’s managing career starts to build, and Helen gets frustrated at his lack of attention to her career. There are some funny comparisons of Deep Purple, Tiny Tim, and Helen’s singing styles, but finally Capitol Records gives her a shot at recording a single.
Helen’s career takes off, as does her friend Lilian’s, who becomes the ‘Mother of Rock’ with her Rock ‘n Roll Encyclopedia, and subsequent reviews and articles. In fact, Ms. Roxon deserves a biopic or documentary highlighting her influence on rock journalism. As Helen puts out hit records, her husband Jeff is managing many successful acts. Money is pouring in (and out) and in contrast to Helen’s common sense manner, Jeff partakes of drugs and alcohol to extremes. Of course, the key component of Helen’s career and the movie is in regards to her writing the title song … a song that the skeptical executives of Capitol Records said made her sound “too angry”.
It was Lilian who introduced the women’s movement to Helen, but Helen was inherently ambitious and strong-willed … it ended up being the perfect match. Reddy supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), even as Phyllis Schlafly fought hard against it. Helen’s 1972 song “I Am Woman” became a huge hit, and later the anthem for a movement. But Helen Reddy’s story isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, and despite a dose of clichés, and some overacting on the part of Peters, the movie does an admirable job showing how she reacted to the challenges.
Director Moon’s husband Dion Beebe (Oscar winner for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, 2005) is the cinematographer, and he does nice work with the stage performances, as well as the more intimate moments. However, it’s Ms. Cobham-Hervey who stands out. I’ve only previously seen her in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018), and she captures the determination and charisma of Helen Reddy. We see her strength as she instills life lessons in her kids, and goes toe-to-toe with her husband. It’s an impressive performance.
The movie shows us Helen’s 1982 Las Vegas act, and we hear most, if not all, of her hits, “Delta Dawn”, “Leave Me Alone” (actually a pretty annoying song), “You and Me Against the World”, “Angie Baby”, and obviously, “I Am Woman”. Later, in 1989, we see a grown up Traci talk her retired mother into performing her most famous song at the Washington DC rally of the National Organization of Women. It’s quite a moment that encapsulates the empowerment that Helen Reddy devoted her life to. The movie doesn’t go there, but it’s unfortunate that Ms. Reddy has been afflicted with dementia since 2015. Like all great artists, her work will survive her.
In select theaters and VOD on September 11, 2020
watch the trailer: