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Wisdom born of pain – ‘I Am Woman’

September 14, 2020
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Biopics – particularly music biopics – can be difficult to pull off. Telling the stories of iconic figures is always tricky, but when you introduce a level of performance into the mix, well … it doesn’t always go the way you’d want. I tend to be more into “slice of life” biopics than “cradle to grave” – the truth is that most of the time, the beginning and the end don’t necessarily contribute significantly to the tale being told.

“I Am Woman,” the new biopic of singer Helen Reddy, falls into the former category (though the slice is pretty hefty, traversing the mid-1960s and moving well into the ‘80s). Directed by Unjoo Moon from a screenplay by Emma Jensen, it focuses on the heyday of the iconic singer, from her early struggles through her meteoric rise and on to the inevitable tumble.

It’s a charming, albeit formulaic film, hitting all the standard beats that we’ve come to expect from the genre. That’s not meant to be dismissive, though – it’s a formula because it works if it’s executed properly. And this one is, dipping in and out of the timeline as the story of a woman who was more than the song that came to define her.

In 1966, Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, “Burn”) lands in New York City, her three-year-old daughter in tow. She’s come all the way from Australia to make a career for herself as a singer, enticed by a contest that she won. Upon arrival, she learns that what she won was not a record deal, but an audition – an audition that the executive she speaks to informs her consisted of the tape that won her the contest.

Down but not out, Helen refuses to concede, moving into a fleabag hotel and getting a gig as a lounge singer. Desperate for connection, she reaches out to fellow Australian Lilian Roxon (Danielle MacDonald, TV’s “Unbelievable”), a journalist with dreams of becoming a rock critic.

Things take a turn when Helen meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), an aspiring manager who believes in her talent even as he falls in love with her. He convinces her to make the move to Los Angeles in an effort to jumpstart her career, but after they marry, they start to fall into the traditional gender roles of the time – he works, she keeps house – as the industry refuses to believe that the kind of woman-oriented music that Helen does can succeed. But when Jeff somewhat reluctantly starts to advocate more strongly for her, she lands a deal.

And then she writes “I Am Woman” and it all explodes.

That song tops the chart and becomes a feminist icon, selling millions of records and launching more hit singles and performing to standing-room crowds all over the world. But behind the scenes, it isn’t all sunshine and roses, as the relationship between Helen and Jeff begins to show strain, with the breakneck pace and some questionable behaviors gradually bubbling over.

And through it all, Helen Reddy remains the consummate professional, hiding her personal pain behind the bright smile, lovely voice and positive stage presence.

“I Am Woman” doesn’t do anything that you haven’t seen before … and that’s OK. As far as myself, I admit to not knowing much of her story beyond the titular song, so an even-handed stroll through the bulk of her career is a perfect primer. Her relationships with family and friends played a real part in her work and career, though one could argue that beyond the dynamic with Jeff, those relationships are somewhat underexplored.

Capturing the time-and-place vibe is tough with a movie like this one, but Moon proves adept, finding ways to evoke the era while using bits of archival footage to complete the illusion. It’s a delicate dance, but one to which she clearly knows the steps. Stories like this are built on moments and she shows an aptitude for capturing them.

(It doesn’t hurt that the music is excellent. Again, I’ll confess to not knowing a lot about Helen Reddy coming in, but one cannot deny that she put out some bangers. The titular tune is great, of course, but just as an example, “Delta Dawn” straight-up slaps – always has, always will.)

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the foundation of the film’s success. She practically glows as Helen Reddy, whether she’s at home with her kids or on stage in front of thousands; there’s an undeniable energy to her that is a joy to watch. Don’t be surprised to see her career start to take off here in the States – there’s real star quality there. Peters is probably the biggest star in the film. His take on Jeff Wald is good, though it feels fairly standard – we’ve seen this version of the husband/manager many times before, but he tries to bring some freshness. And MacDonald is extremely talented, though underused – I’d have liked to see a bit more of her, to be honest. Still – it’s Cobham-Hervey’s show and the movie is the better for it.

“I Am Woman” isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it tells a story worth telling and does so in an engaging way. Unjoo Moon and her crew aren’t reinventing the wheel, but the familiarity is more than compensated for by the charming electricity that Cobham-Hervey brings to the party – indeed, we hear her roar.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 September 2020 13:09

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