It’s 1966 and a young Helen Reddy, as played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, has just arrived in New York City, pigtailed daughter at her side, for a meeting at Mercury Records to collect on the audition she believes she won on an Australian TV talent show.
In the opening scene of “I Am Woman” (★★★½ out of four; unrated; out Friday in select theaters, virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee, digital platforms and video on demand), she’s met by a glib, condescending misogynist, who welcomes her with “There, she is, our little winner,” and asks if she’s turned down his cocktail because she’s religious or dieting, adding “I know how you ladies like to look your best.”
And so it goes, Reddy eventually learning that there is no actual audition much less a recording contract because “all the radio stations already have an allotted spot on their playlist for the female record.”
Later, Reddy is singing at a New York City nightclub, where she asks the owner why she’s being paid less than the male musicians.
When she bristles at his explanation that those men have families to feed, he brushes her off with “You wanna complain about equal pay? Find another gig.”
With that, the scene is set for Reddy’s inspiring journey from starry-eyed talent-show dreamer to the fiercely independent voice of “I Am Woman,” a chart-topping single that became an anthem for the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.
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‘I Am Woman’: The real story behind Helen Reddy’s empowering feminist anthem and new biopic
Directed and produced by Australian filmmaker Unjoo Moon, “I Am Woman” does a brilliant job of capturing the spirit of the times as Cobham-Hervey leads the viewer through the highs and lows of Reddy’s rise to fame while lip-syncing the hits in her ’60s and ’70s fashions.
Along the way, she falls in love with Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who talks her into moving to Los Angeles by promising to make her famous.
By the time a callous journalist asks Wald if being seen as Mr. Helen Reddy is emasculating, he’s already headed for an epic downward spiral as an abusive monster bingeing on coke and making life unbearable for Reddy.
That’s not the only pain in Reddy’s life.
Her friendship with fellow Australian Lillian Roxon, a journalist whose passion for the women’s movement inspires the writing of “I Am Woman,” ends badly. As does her career.
It only takes five years to get from “I Am Woman” to her final pop hit, “You’re My World.” By the final scene of “I Am Woman,” she’s long since retired from music.
And yet, Moon’s clearly empathetic telling of her story manages to weave all that pathos and pain into an ultimately uplifting experience.
With “I Am Woman” as both title and the filter through which Reddy’s life is seen, the film becomes a life-affirming portrait of Reddy as a feminist icon, demanding a seat at the table in an industry controlled by people like the label rep we meet in that first scene.
It’s also depressingly timely. As we’re reminded just before the credits roll, the Equal Rights Amendment at the center of the struggle back when Reddy cut that title track has yet to be passed. And as for equal pay? That thing she had the nerve to ask for in that early scene? Still working on it.
There are moments in the film that may feel corny or contrived, as often happens in the cliched world of music biopics. Some aspects of her life that don’t advance the narrative in a meaningful way are sacrificed for storytelling purposes.
What “I Am Woman” has that does so much to help it rise about the level of most music biopics is Cobham-Hervey. Her performance is beyond magnetic as she draws the viewer into Reddy’s world with nuance and vulnerability.
She also invests the role with the strength and conviction required to play a star whose first chart-topping single set the tone with, “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore,” at a time when wanting equal rights was treated as a radical idea.
There’s a swagger to the way she moves through scenes that call for swagger. And it suits an entertainer who famously thanked God “because she makes everything possible” in accepting a Grammy for “I Am Woman.”
Peters’ portrayal of Wald is far less nuanced and frequently over-the-top to the point of distraction, and Danielle Macdonald’s Roxon left me wondering what Reddy ever saw in her.
But Cobham-Hervey’s breathtaking performance elevates the whole endeavor. It’s in her understatement that we truly hear this woman roar.