'I Am Woman': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Tilda Cobham-Hervey in 'I Am Woman'
Imperfect but empowering.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey gives a breakout performance as Helen Reddy in Unjoo Moon's admiring bio-portrait of the Australian vocalist whose string of 1970s hits included the unofficial anthem of the feminist movement.

The fall festivals have been awash in female biopics — Jean Seberg, Judy Garland, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie — most of them with their respective merits but also to various degrees hampered by the inherent conventionality of the genre. I Am Woman, which charts the life and career of 1970s superstar Australian vocalist Helen Reddy, is built around a script that labors from the outset to position its subject as a feminist trailblazer, taking the title song as its cue. But the movie's considerable appeal is more unassuming, derived from the respect and affection of director Unjoo Moon's treatment and especially from the relaxed charisma of Tilda Cobham-Hervey's empathetic lead performance.

Full disclosure — I'm an easy sell on music bios revisiting women who emerged in the '60s and '70s. The cheesy Olivia Newton John Lifetime movie, I Honestly Love You, was a guilty pleasure, and the Brit miniseries about Beatles contemporary Cilla Black was a blast, just to name two recent indulgences. Even with its flaws, I Am Woman lands on the quality end of the spectrum; the movie will be irresistible to baby boomers who grew up hearing Reddy's extraordinary string of top 40 hits, with a generous selection of them reprised in fabulous performance sequences.

Debuting feature director Moon and writer Emma Jensen (Mary Shelley), who drew from Reddy's memoir The Woman I Am, can be forgiven for pushing a little strenuously to connect the singer's story to the current moment, when the issue of gender parity has roared back into the cultural conversation and the conservative U.S. government is threatening women's choices and freedoms.

But from the first scene, in which Helen emerges from a New York subway station and the camera catches an advertisement with a demure housewife holding a ketchup bottle, saying, "Even I can open it," the film hits you over the head with the odds stacked against Reddy's success. The patronizing sexism of a record company rep who deflates her hopes by telling her there's no market for female singers hammers it further.

Reddy certainly earned her page in the feminist narrative, having penned and recorded the song that became the unofficial anthem of the women's rights movement just as second-wave feminism was taking full flight. Watching women of all ages and ethnicities sit up and take notice when "I Am Woman" — a song the dismissive male record company executives had tried to bury — is performed in a Washington, D.C., club in the early '70s, and then later seeing a sea of jubilant faces singing along with every word at a 1989 women's rally, again in D.C., is rousing and emotional, bringing tears to the eyes.

But Reddy at her peak defied categorization as an easy-listening Betty Friedan, even if that song is depicted as coming directly from a combination of her self-actualization and the frustration of men not giving her the opportunities her talent and ambition demanded. For someone who propelled herself to stardom by sheer will and persistence, she's far from straightforward. Jensen's script declines to investigate such anomalies as why she didn't continue to pursue songwriting, instead favoring covers and other writers' compositions. A notable handful of them were story songs that depicted women unhinged by men, like "Delta Dawn" and "Leave Me Alone," or just plain unhinged, like "Angie Baby."

It's those contradictions that make Reddy such a uniquely interesting figure in popular music; this was the woman dubbed "the queen of housewife rock" by Alice Cooper, after all. Moon's film is strongest when it's less obvious about waving banners and just settles into an infectious appreciation of Reddy's artistry, her grounded quality and the breezy assurance of her performance style.

To that end, the movie has an invaluable asset in the effortlessly captivating Cobham-Hervey. Looking willowy and stylish in costumer Emily Seresin's period-chic shirtdresses, trouser suits and halter gowns, she captures Reddy's easy, striding swagger on stage, and she ages convincingly from her mid-20s to her late-40s, with just a subtle assist from makeup and hair. Her vocals are mostly dubbed by Chelsea Cullen, who does a fine approximation of Reddy's signature blend of warmth and nasality, alongside use of original recordings. It's refreshing that so many classic nuggets of '70s and early '80s pop are heard at length, not truncated as they so often are in jukebox musicals.

Alongside her children, two key figures loom large in Reddy's life. One is Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), a fellow Australian expatriate breaking into music journalism when Helen arrives in New York; she published the first rock encyclopedia in 1969. The other is Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), the talent agent and manager who became Helen's second husband, whisking her off to Los Angeles and vowing to make her a star. But his focus on other acts like Brit metal-heads Deep Purple leaves her feeling abandoned, and Jeff only delivers once Helen forces his hand.

Both these characters fall into pedestrian bio-drama grooves. The talented Macdonald is a spirited presence as always, and Lillian is like Janis Joplin meets Hildy Johnson. But her conspicuous cough telegraphs her early departure, and her pact with Helen quoting the title of a future hit penned by Paul Williams — "You and Me Against the World" — is a tad on the nose. Lillian mostly serves to bulk up Helen's feminist bona fides, though the use of her liner notes from Reddy's first album at a strategic moment late in the action is genuinely moving.

Peters plays Wald's out-of-control spiral with conviction but it's clear from his first twitchy cokehead sniff that he's going to be a stock figure — erratic and untrustworthy, driving her to exhaustion and snorting up the profits until there's nothing left but a mountain of unpaid debts, tax arrears and double mortgages. Cue "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady."

But even when it veers into familiar territory, I Am Woman remains entertaining and sharply packaged. Moon gets ace backup from her Oscar-winning cinematographer (and husband) Dion Beebe, who brings slick vitality to the many performance interludes, from Helen's tours, television shows and Vegas residency; editor Dany Cooper keeps the two hours humming along at a pleasing pace; and Michael Turner's textured period production design provides visual interest without too often calling attention to itself.

The crucial thing is that you really root for Helen — to make it in the first place and then to make it through a nightmarish marriage and come out unbroken. The luminous Cobham-Hervey has you in the corner of this smart, pragmatic, quietly driven woman all the way. There's palpable excitement when she accidentally lands her first hit with a dazzling recording studio take of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from Jesus Christ Superstar, intended as a B-side to a debut single that Capitol had no faith in.

Moon weaves in archive material, notably Reddy's 1973 Grammy win for best female pop vocal performance for "I Am Woman," seamlessly intercut with Cobham-Hervey delivering the famous acceptance-speech wrap-up in which she thanked God, "because she makes everything possible." There are also clips supporting the feminist-history angle, from Shirley Chisholm's run for the Democratic Party presidential ticket through news recaps of the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the squawking of ERA opponents like Phyllis Schlafly. The sad fact that the bill has yet to be passed helps explain why the lyrics of Reddy's most enduring hit still carry such stirring power.

Production company: Goalpost Pictures, in association with Deep Blue Pacific
Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Danielle Macdonald, Evan Peters, Molly Broadstock, Liam Douglas
Director: Unjoo Moon
Screenwriter: Emma Jensen, inspired by The Woman I Am, by Helen Reddy
Producers: Rosemary Blight, Unjoo Moon
Executive producers: Kylie du Fresne, Ben Grant, Cass O'Connor, Tracey Mair, Marcus Bolton, Sharon Harel, Maya Amsellem
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Michael Turner
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Music: Rafael May
Editor: Dany Cooper
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Sales: WestEnd Films
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

116 minutes