Helen Reddy’s story is clearly one that needs to be told, and screenwriter Emma Jensen at least seems to understand that necessity. I Am Woman delivers on that basic promise: to weave the tale of Reddy, an Australian singer-songwriter who arrived in New York with only a few hundred dollars and built her fanbase in Los Angeles when the song of the title became the anthem of the feminist movement of the 1970s. Jensen takes us through this story, which unfolds over the course of two decades, with a sense of comprehensive trivial pursuit. What’s missing, though, is the passion of vision that should, by any stretch of the imagination, accompany this story. All we get are the story beats, a broad picture of Reddy’s eventual influence and a solid lead performance.

For some, this might be enough, but it does beg the question of whether Jensen and director Unjoo Moon are doing the bare minimum in bringing this story to life. The movie’s portrait of Reddy, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, is as thin as it gets. At the film’s start, Helen has arrived in the U.S. with her daughter, some money and a dream: to become a star using her voice and her conviction. Unfortunately (according to some brash male executives who barely have the headspace to deal with her right this moment), her arrival is timed with the invasion of British pop and rock outfits, including that most fab group of four who have so thoroughly captivated the world. Instead of playing sold-out shows in massive stadiums, Helen is relegated to the shadowy dive-bar scene, living out of a hotel for the time being.

It’s the type of story we’ve seen, in which the underdog fights their way to the top (by way of sheer will, knowing the right people, or – as in this case – both), but at least the story of Reddy is blessed by the time period in which it is set. Keeping time with her claim to fame – a song which those misogynistic executives wanted buried within the 1972 album to which it gave its name – is the imminent vote to ratify Equal Rights Amendment, fully supported by Helen and the thousands of women who marched and opposed, of course, by the vocal and vociferous Phyllis Schlafly. There is some potential here to place Helen’s story within an overarching historical context, but Moon and Jensen don’t go deep enough, content with only the facts.

Elsewhere, the filmmakers rely on the old storytelling tricks of a screen biography – montages of musical performances and chart ascension and a tumultuous family life. Helen befriends music critic Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), whose entire presence here is predicated upon her eventually failing health, and marries Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, doing his best with a broad, inconsistent character), a penniless man who promises the world as her manager but only brings betrayal and anger issues. Jensen’s screenplay also leaps forward by the decade when the time comes to touch upon some new milestone, eventually reaching legend status, thanks to “I Am Woman,” and a comeback performance, courtesy of her grown-up daughter Traci (Molly Broadstock).

All of this is presented to us in the terms of a broadly developed music biography, but none of it holds water. The problem is certainly not in the performance from Cobham-Hervey, whose charm radiates from the screen, or in selling us on the music, which is clearly full of passion, verve and thematic integrity. It’s simply that such attributes seem limited to the potential of the story and do not extend to Moon’s flavorless, simplified vision. I Am Woman is a disappointment, and it is telling that the most momentous occasion for Helen Reddy happens almost precisely halfway through the proceedings. That, if nothing else, should indicate how Moon and Jensen are coasting on the importance of Reddy’s influence without putting in the appropriate effort to communicate it.

All we get are the story beats, a broad picture of Helen Reddy’s eventual influence and a solid lead performance.
50 %
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