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Film Review: “I Am Woman” May Not Quite Roar, but Still Mostly Gives Helen Reddy Her Due

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 11th, 2020

Film poster: “I Am Woman”

I Am Woman (Unjoo Moon, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

In 1971, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter originally from Australia penned what would become not only a hit song, but the anthem of the second-wave feminist movement. Her name was Helen Reddy, and that blockbuster melody was “I Am Woman.” Now, director Unjoo Moon, also from Australia, is out with a new eponymous biopic about Reddy that takes us along for the ride as she arrives, a single mother, young daughter in tow, in New York City with a hope and a dream, neither of which initially come true.

As played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Burn), Reddy is burning with ambition and ready to take on the male establishment upon landing, though neither impetus is quite enough to get her where she needs to go. It will take her friendship with an established Aussie rock journalist, Lillian Roxon (played by Danielle McDonald, Dumplin’) and a marriage to an American wannabe producer, Jeff Wald (played by Evan Peters, American Animals), to launch her career, but once she gets going, there’s no stopping her. Though the movie drags in places and sometimes descends into sentimental clichés, it’s still ultimately a decent enough tribute to her life and music.

l-r: Danielle McDonald and Tilda Cobham-Hervey in I AM WOMAN @Quiver Distribution

But at two hours, it could stand to be about 30 minutes shorter, and to borrow some of the energy that Wald appears to derive from the copious cocaine he snorts, though I hated the way the director represented that part of the story. By his own admission, the real-life Wald had a most definite drug problem, which eventually led to the collapse of his marriage to Reddy, but the way Moon zeroes in on Peters’ twitchy fingers as he pinches some powder to shove up his nose is the equivalent of actorly indicating, the jonesing made so obvious that we want to scream, “Enough! I get it. He’s an addict!”

For her part, Cobham-Hervey is solid, though her lip-syncing of Reddy’s tunes is not always on target. McDonald is her usual compelling self, though her part is woefully small. Looming large over everyone’s performance is the music, itself, which to me was, surprisingly, a bit of a letdown. Though I was alive (but just a toddler) when the titular song was released, I somehow have no memory of ever having heard it. How is that even possible, I wonder? I was familiar, however, with the lyric “I am woman, hear me roar” (a great turn of phrase, of that there is no doubt). Finally hearing it in context was a disappointment, as I expected a more powerful anthem than the soft-rock/country-style ballad that it is. To each their own.

l-r: Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Evan Peters in I AM WOMAN @Quiver Distribution

No matter my taste, there is no question that Reddy spoke to her moment, and I Am Woman, the movie, effectively portrays her struggle against the sexism of the time (and of any time). She was bold in action, penning hit after hit, defying the record executives who thought her a lightweight. She roared, in other words, and even if this biopic just yells a little, it’s still nice to see Reddy get some kind of present-day due.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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