Helen Reddy is no longer a household name for the current generation, but for baby boomers in the 1970s she was a feminist icon after her hit single “I Am Woman” was co-opted by the women’s liberation movement as its unofficial anthem. It is a cheesy song by today’s standards, with lyrics referring to birthing pains and embryos that will make the modern feminist cringe, but through simple declarative statements like “I am strong” and “I am invincible” it allowed women from all walks of life to feel good about themselves. To stop feeling secondary to the men in their lives. To go out and pursue the careers and hobbies they desired, instead of feeling obligated to stay home as mere housewives. The song gave women the courage to take a stand and reinvent themselves, and for that reason Reddy’s vaunted place in the feminist movement has long since been secured.
Unjoo Moon presents us with a biopic about Reddy’s rise to pop stardom, with the hope of perhaps reintroducing the singer to modern audiences after contextualizing her significance in the ‘70s music industry. Unfortunately, I fear her efforts will go largely unnoticed, with part of the problem being the film itself. It is conventional to a fault, recounting Reddy’s musical trajectory with a rote complacency, never endeavouring to locate interesting swells in her personal narrative that could justify the effort. Nothing is critically examined to a great degree—not the actual specifics of Reddy’s feminism, not the sociopolitical climate that helped propel her success (apart from a few news broadcasts playing in the background at certain moments), not the actual substance of her music-making process, or even her musical choices outside “I Am Woman.” We see Tilda Cobham-Hervey perform several of Reddy’s deeper cuts (like “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby”), but how and why they came to be in her catalogue of hits is never touched upon. Instead, the film is more concerned with Reddy’s tumultuous marriage to her manager Jeff Wald, which took a turn for the worse when Wald became heavily addicted to cocaine and started mismanaging their savings. The film portrays Evan Peters’ Wald as a loutish sleaze with misogynistic tendencies, conveniently paired as a foil to Cobham-Hervey’s assertive rosiness. With all his bluster, one can see why he becomes one of the film’s main focuses. However, the destructive nature of the relationship is difficult to mine for content because it is so blandly rendered, comprised of the typical arguments and capitulations. One also seems to know Reddy less and less with Jeff in the way of her spotlight, and in that sense the film seems to contradict its aims, for why make it a feminist portrait when the antagonistic male is so predominant? It leads us to ask whether this is, indeed, a movie about Helen Reddy and not (to refer to the new Noah Baumbach film) just another commonplace marriage story.
Even worse, the way Reddy’s story is set up will make any reasonable viewer question just why this biopic exists. If, for some reason, your aim as a filmmaker is to render a subject as generically as possible, it is fair game to question intent. Reddy lived an eventful life, but the way it’s presented here makes it seem like the contrary, and this will most likely prevent more people from discovering her work. She will remain as niche an artist as she was since she stopped touring regularly over a decade ago. A footnote for everyone except the most enthusiastic of pop aficionados and women’s lib mainstays. Considering she was a gifted vocalist who could elevate whatever material was given to her, it’s a shame, then, that Moon and her cast can’t do the same for the first (and probably only) depiction of her life on screen.
I Am Woman had its world premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 5, 2019.