Early on in “I Am Woman,” the Helen Reddy biopic now on digital and on demand, the Australian singer, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, passes a subway advertisement that sets the tone for the test of the movie. A housewife holds a bottle of ketchup and with a look of surprise says, “Even I can open it!” as Reddy makes her way to a meeting with a dismissive record industry twit.
Melbourne-born Reddy’s plainspoken anthems for a generation of women kicked open doors in a sexist industry and while she never says, “Even I can open it,” about a bottle of ketchup or anything else in the film, it’s clear from the start she has no doubt that she can.
Based on Reddy’s memoir “The Woman I Am,” the movie begins in 1966 when the Beatles ruled the charts and record labels were not interested in “girl singers.” Single-mom Reddy and her young daughter land in New York on the mistaken belief that a record deal was awaiting. It wasn’t but Reddy was, well, ready for success. A polished singer and performer, she just needed a break. That came in the form of Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), an ambitious music biz insider who becomes her manager and husband. When he puts down the coke spoon long enough to focus on Reddy’s career, he manages to land her a record contract. The resulting album, 1971’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and it’s number one hit “I Am Woman” established Reddy not only as a creative force but also as a figurehead of the era’s feminist movement.
“I Am Woman” follows the standard 1970s “Behind the Music” biopic formula. From struggling artist to chart topper, with all the sexism, drugs and rock n’ roll—OK, make that easy listening rock—you expect from a showbiz tale writ large. Add to that some on-the-nose soundtrack decisions—”You and Me Against the World” warbles in the background as Reddy and her music journalist pal Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald) are trying to make a dent in the music business and, the even heavier-handed “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady” adorns a scene of marital discord—and you have the makings of corny musical melodrama.
What sets it apart from the pack is a charismatic performance from Cobham-Hervey and some nicely rendered musical numbers.
In a breakout performance Cobham-Hervey captures the spirit of Reddy, a talented everywoman who fought against workplace harassment and discrimination to achieve success. She’s charismatic but brings a certain kind of effortlessness to role, a hard to define quality on display in her first in-studio scene. She’s having a hard time performing to a room of disinterested hard rock producers until Wald suggests she pretend she’s on stage. As the nerves settle Cobham-Hervey brings Reddy to life, allowing the strong, invincible singer to emerge. (Chelsea Cullen provides Reddy’s singing voice.)
Equally effective is the montage that introduces the title song. Intercutting Reddy’s performance with news footage of Equal Rights Amendment rallies and women’s liberation protests, director Unjoo Moon creates a picture perfect portrait of the time, showing us, not telling us why the song was then, and remains, such a powerful statement.
“I Am Woman” is an entertaining, if conventional biography of a woman who was anything but conventional.