Biopics, thanks to successes like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, have been appearing on the silver screen with increasing frequency. The latest figure to get her turn in the spotlight is Australian-born American soloist Helen Reddy. I Am Woman tells the story of how hard she had to work to achieve her dream, how she became a feminist icon, and how much she had to put up with along the way.
Personal stories such as this one live or die on the backs of their characters. Thankfully, Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Evan Peters turn in stellar performances. The former captures Reddy’s no-nonsense approach to life and the hundreds of emotions necessary to depict everything she goes through exceptionally; the latter cuts a brilliant portrait as the deeply troubled band manager Jeff Wald who Reddy marries and trusts to oversee her career, all the while he struggles with substance abuse and feeling somewhat emasculated by Reddy’s success, turning violent in the process.
Equally deserving of praise is Chelsea Cullen who provides the singing voice for this portrait of Reddy, and the performance scenes are some of the film’s best moments. Dialogue at times feels rather clunky with characters (especially between Cobham-Hervey’s Reddy and Danielle Macdonald’s Lillian Roxon) sometimes speaking in cliches, but the cast nevertheless generally do a good job with what they’re given by screenwriter Emma Jensen.
If you are at all familiar with the shape biopics have taken in recent years, you’re on familiar grounds here. Reddy’s personal life is woven together into a relatively straight-forward rags-to-riches type tale. She starts off finding out the recording contract she’d won in a competition was just the chance at getting a contract and has to take odd jobs trying to get to where she wants to be to provide for her daughter. Along the way she struggles with domestic life and, inspired by the burgeoning women’s movement, is inspired to do her own thing. It’s a simplistic plot, one which stretches out and limits the central character into a limited persona. Reddy, despite her performances, feels more like a set of behaviours than a rounded person.
Pacing is also a notable issue. Reddy’s life is glossed over as a series of moments, depicting vignettes that struggle both under the weight of the women’s liberation sub-plot and the musical performances. Lending less of the runtime to these staged performances of Helen’s music, even though these are some of the best scenes in the film, would have allowed more of Reddy’s achievements (such as headlining her own primetime show) to be celebrated. This would also leave more time for the film’s more serious, emotional moments and allow them to hold more weight.
Essentially, there is far too much content stuffed in. It trades on a rather surface-level appeal to modern feminist movements, forcing in ham-fisted scenes of fat-headed music execs debating the merits of Reddy in an almost parodic fashion. Furthermore, deciding to contextualise the moment Reddy writes her most iconic song ‘I am Woman’ with inserted archival footage of the National Organisation for Women’s march and narration from music reporter and friend Roxon celebrates women’s liberation and not Reddy. Whilst it would be silly to exclude such historical context, it feels like I Am Woman is at times more interested in this cultural zeitgeist than the true subject of the film.
Despite these issues, I Am Woman is nevertheless enjoyable. Costume and set design are of particular note, capturing the changing eras effortlessly and transporting the audience to whole auditoriums in the 60s and 70s with ease. Reddy’s songs endure, as catchy as they were on release, and they induce chills when they ring out to crowds of cheering viewers. The growing relationship between Reddy and her daughter also renders some heart-warming, if a little trite, moments too.
Overall, I Am Woman is a paint-by-numbers biopic that is carried by Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s magnetic performance. Thriving on its lead performers, it does little to experiment with the biopic as a genre, but nevertheless tells an engaging and enjoyable story. At its peak, I Am Woman will likely bring a smile to your face as it did mine. In other moments you may well be left feeling you’ve watched this film before, just with other personalities on the screen.
Dir: Unjoo Moon
Scr: Emma Jensen
Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Chelsea Cullen (singing voice only), Chris Parnell
Prd: Rosemary Blight, Unjoo Moon
DOP: Dion Beebe
Music: Rafeal May
Run time: 116 minutes
I AM WOMAN is in UK and Irish Cinema and Digital Platforms on 9th Oct