This might not be the most judicious or diplomatic question with which to begin a review, but can you make an interesting musical biopic of an artist who didn’t make very interesting music? In many ways, that’s the question that faced director Unjoo Moon when she tackled the life and career of Helen Reddy in “I Am Woman,” and the answer is inconclusive at best.
The Australian singer Reddy, after all, was a middle-of-the-road performer whose albums were often assembled by taking recent pop, rock and country songs and making them blander with smooth arrangements that largely sanded down the bit of sharpness that was the most distinctive thing about her voice. Her career wouldn’t be the stuff of biopics if not for one of the few songs that Reddy co-wrote herself, her 1971 composition and 1972 hit “I Am Woman,” which came along at exactly the right time to become an anthem of sorts for the burgeoning women’s movement of the early 1970s.
So “I Am Woman,” the movie, views everything through the prism of “I Am Woman,” the song; before she even writes it, line after line of dialogue telegraphs that it’s coming, and by the time the movie ends with a 1989 women’s march on Washington, it’s pretty much the only thing everybody remembers her for.
A 2019 Toronto Film Festival premiere that comes to theaters and VOD on Sept. 11, the film has plenty of affection for its subject, but it lacks the energy of, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which, full disclosure, I hated), or the craziness and artistic license of “Rocketman” (which I liked quite a bit). It’s a by-the-numbers biopic that doesn’t give star Tilda Cobham-Hervey enough to work with, and doesn’t make Helen Reddy the person interesting enough to emerge from behind Helen Reddy the voice behind that one iconic song.
The film begins in 1966, when Reddy and her young daughter get off the subway in New York City for what she thinks is a rendezvous with destiny via a contract with Mercury Records. But it turns out that the label wants male bands, not female singers, so Reddy ends up living in a rundown hotel and singing in a lounge band.
But she finds two allies, of sorts: Lilian Roxon, a fellow Australian who became one of the pioneering critics in the new field of rock journalism, and Jeff Wald, a fast-talking wannabe manager who works in the William Morris mailroom but promises to make Reddy a star. Roxon is played by “Patti Cake$” star Danielle Macdonald, but the film never explores the inherent oddity of a real-life rock journalist with a penchant for the cutting edge becoming BFFs with a singer who had barely a hint of rock ‘n’ roll in her.
As for Wald, played by Evan Peters, he’s boyishly charming but thoroughly sleazy, and we know he’s bad news from the moment Helen beats him at chess and he makes a beeline for the door. But she marries him and she becomes a star and he turns into a drug-addled monster, all with nary a surprising moment along the way.
The film is a catalog of the casually sexist indignities that Reddy endured along the way to writing “I Am Woman.” “There are a lot of mes out there,” Helen insists to Jeff when he tries to tell her that nobody wants her because she’s wholesome and a housewife.
There were a lot of hers out there, and she found them, though not exactly in the way that “I Am Woman” tells it. The film compresses time, juggles chronology in some instances and leaves out things like her first record deal with Fontana; it also suggests that the song “I Am Woman” was a hit despite being buried on her first album, when in fact the version that became a hit was a re-recording and the title track of her third album.
Once she has the hit, the movie goes into hyperdrive, fast-forwarding years at a time during montages of Reddy singing her songs onstage. (Cobham-Hervey lip-syncs in these scenes to new, Reddy-esque vocals recorded by Chelsea Cullen, with the original recordings heard in the background of a couple of scenes.) The film works hard to find autobiographical themes in songs that in all but two cases were not written by Reddy, but it also gets to the point where it seems less interested in her musical career than on Wald’s cocaine addiction and what a terrible husband he turned out to be.
The film is always flirting with cliché, and it gets pretty cheesy on a few occasions – though to be sure, it looks a lot better than most cheesy movies, courtesy of cinematographer Dion Beebe. And Cobham-Hervey manages to be appealing throughout, though she’s better at conveying the burden of the daily sexism that Reddy faced than locating the grit that got her through it. (Or maybe the script just doesn’t give her the grit to work with.)
But in the end, it really does help to have interesting music if you want to make an interesting biopic of a musician. And while it might be possible to have one without the other, “I Am Woman” is not the movie to pull off that particular sleight-of-hand.