I AM WOMAN (2020)
Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Danielle MacDonald, Evan Peters, Matty Cardarople, Dusty Sorg, Gus Murray, Molly Broadstock
Directed by Unjoo Moon
Helen Reddy scored 9 Number One hit singles on the U.S. charts and sold over 25 million albums. Her 1971 song “I Am Woman” became an anthem for the women’s liberation movement and is still celebrated as a symbol of female empowerment. You may be familiar with the song but probably not with the Australian singer’s fascinating story. Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who bears a striking resemblance to Reddy, delivers a sensational performance as the singer who grew up around strong women which gave her the fortitude to keep pushing in an industry, like most establishments, controlled by men.
The film opens as 25-year old Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) arrives in New York with a three-year-old daughter, one suitcase, and $230. It’s 1966 and she’s traveled from Australia after winning a recording contract with Mercury Records on the television show Bandstand. She’s met by a sleazy record exec who tries to get her drunk and then informs her that she only won an audition and “male groups are all the rage right now” using The Beatles as a reference. He then tells her that she couldn’t get any airplay on radio stations anyway since all the slots reserved for women have already been filled.
Reddy gets a job singing on the club circuit but notices she’s being discriminated against for being a woman, “I’m getting paid less than the band” she complains to the club owner who tells her to find another gig or bring it up with immigration—a subtle threat since Helen is not a legal citizen.
Danielle MacDonald—who delivered a knockout performance as a wannabe rapper in 2017’s “Patti Cake$”—plays Helen’s best friend Lillian Roxon, a fellow Australian working as a rock journalist in NYC—she becomes hailed as the “Mother of Rock” after writing the renowned Rock Encyclopedia. Roxon uses her connections to throw Reddy a party where the aspiring singer meets her future husband-agent, William Morris mailroom clerk Jeff Wald (Evan Peters).
Peters—known for playing “Quicksilver” in the X-Men films—turns in a mature performance as the cocaine-addicted agent who after much prodding from Reddy gets her into a recording studio and in front of the right people. Wald eventually becomes abusive and abandons Reddy to concentrate on his growing roster of clients including the band Deep Purple.
Cobham-Hervey resembles Reddy but it’s Australian singer Chelsea Cullen who does all the singing in the film. Her vocals were combined with Reddy’s to give the film an authentic feel. It’s the same technique used in “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Canadian singer Marc Martel’s vocals were blended with Freddie Mercury’s for Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning performance.
Director Unjoo Moon and writer Emma Jensen, using Reddy’s 2006 memoir “The Woman I Am” as a guide for the biopic, craft an entertaining look at an extraordinary singer-songwriter-activist whose anthem “I Am Woman” remains a battle cry for women’s rights as seen in a recreation of the spirited 1989 “Mobilize for Women’s Lives” rally at Washington’s Lincoln memorial.
Music biopics always seem to leave you yearning for more performance footage as the focus remains on the drama behind the scenes. But Moon incorporates quite a few songs in the film, “Delta Dawn,” “Angie Baby,” and the studio session when Reddy recorded her first hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from “Jesus Christ Superstar”—the B-Side of the single “I Believe in Music.”
There’s a funny scene in the film where Reddy and Wald play the single “I Am Woman” for record execs at Capitol Records including Artie Mogull played by ex-SNL cast member Chris Parnell. As the liberating song plays, the label execs look confused and Mogull blurts out “It’s kind of angry” in that snooty signature Parnell tone. The label doesn’t know what they have so they pass on the single, so Wald comes up with the idea of booking Reddy is a slew of clubs where she performs the song to enthusiastic crowds of women. Before you know it the single climbs to the top of the Billboard chart and Reddy has her own variety television show.
There is so much of Reddy’s career that is not covered in the film including her television and film career, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and helping friend Olivia Newton-John land the role of Sandy in “Grease.”
Moon does manage to pack in a lot in 116 minutes including Reddy’s Grammy win—combing actual footage with Tilda Cobham-Hervey on stage accepting the award while giving that famous speech thanking God "because She makes everything possible”. The end credits provide updates on Reddy and Wald to fill in the blanks. It’s a biopic that’s long overdue featuring a great cast led by Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s sensational performance.
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday 9/11 in theaters and On-Demand