On the surface, Helen Reddy seems like a bit of a stretch for the traditional musical biopic. Though it’s clear that she has had at least two hits that have transcended her AM radio / dollar bin cultural footprint in 2020, she doesn’t exactly fit the traditional rise-and-fall (and, in some cases, rise again) narrative that applies to nearly every pop and rock biopic ever made. Helen Reddy, beyond the quality of her songwriting and performance (and, to some extent, beyond the social impact of the song “I Am Woman”), is corny — and biopics of corny musicians tend to have both feet planted firmly in the Contemporary Christian world. As it turns out, my record snob attitude towards Helen Reddy was pretty much the attitude that the entire world had towards her: that she was a wholesome, corny housewife for whom there was no place in the musical landscape.
Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) moves from Australia to New York City with her three-year-old daughter in the hopes of making it as a singer. She lands a few cabaret gigs and befriends rock critic Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), but things don’t really take off until she meets and marries Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), a budding talent manager who decides to bet it all on Reddy’s career. They move to Los Angeles, where Wald gets a foot in the door managing Tiny Tim and Deep Purple, but finds very little interest for his wife, whose down-the-middle image proves a difficult sell. But with enough persistence, Wald manages to get Reddy a deal, which in turns leads to the blockbuster success of her song “I Am Woman,” an easily digestible pop hit with radical (for the time, anyway) feminist politics.
Though there’s the inevitable tumultuous relationship with Wald (who becomes a sweaty coked-out mess in the classic ’80s mold, complete with montage of him doing blow and yelling at a pool table set to “Me Against the World” and a scene where he hoovers coke out of shag carpeting), words cannot express how refreshing it is to see a movie about pop stardom that isn’t solely about drunk dudes with long hair falling through glass tables, smashing guitars and ODing to the strains of their most ironic hit. Granted, a lot of I Am Woman is perfunctory and surface-level — it’s hardly a radical tract — but considering how much the genre centres on the tragic partying antics of dudes who became millionaires at 19, the relative banality of Reddy’s career (I mean, she was one of the most popular acts in North America — but she did it without so much as throwing a single TV out of a hotel room window) seems revolutionary.
For all of its freshness, when it comes to perspective and which stories are worth telling, however, I Am Woman remains thoroughly mired in the clichés of the genre. Reddy’s recording of her first breakout hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is textbook biopic nonsense, with her fumbling her way through lesser songs and being handed this perfect song that she nails in one take while her husband and the engineers look on wondrously. By the time Reddy really hits with “I Am Woman,” we are treated to the inevitable montage of her singing interspersed with stock footage of women’s marches and of supporting characters nodding approvingly as they find the song climbing up the Billboard charts. Ditto her relationship with Roxon (who, as one of the earliest influential rock critics, is fascinating enough to warrant her own film), which feels perfunctory and opens up a broader discourse on feminism in the ’70s and Reddy’s role in it that’s eventually just folded into a rundown of biographical details.
Part of what makes I Am Woman a refreshing spin on otherwise road-worn tropes is that director Unjoo Moon isn’t necessarily interested in lionizing the quality of Reddy’s output. Most biopics are forced, it seems, to treat everything that their subject puts out as gospel; sure, the band is interesting, but also everything that Mötley Crüe / Elton John / Queen / Hank Williams / whoever has put out in their career is a bop. I Am Woman purports that Helen Reddy’s music was more important than it was good — that what it changed about the world has very little to do with the fact that people should still be jamming out to “Delta Dawn” in 2020. This has the dual effect of making the film an interesting take on a haggard genre and of making its clichés feel doubly unwelcome. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking a chance on a minimalist Helen Reddy biopic, of course; AM Gold vocal-pop mainstays are not exactly fecund territory for arthouse meditations, but I Am Woman works best when its showbiz elements are treated almost as an abstraction.
I must admit that as someone who grew up mainlining stories of rock ’n’ roll excess and struggle to the point where they (consciously or not) inform my reading of the art itself, I had a certain reticence toward a biopic of someone whose music I consider, to put it charitably, easy to ignore. There’s obviously a gender bias to that notion, though, to be honest, I am also dismissive of equivalent hitmakers like Gilbert O’Sullivan or Jim Stafford. What I do appreciate is that I Am Woman seeks to open up the boundaries of the rock biopic genre. The most difficult flaw for the film to overcome is the fact that it’s both so familiar and yet so relatively tame, but I Am Woman manages to prove that those are stories worth telling, too. ■
I Am Woman is available on VOD starting today, Sept. 11. Find more details about the film here, and watch the trailer below:
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