Toronto Film Review: ‘I Am Woman’

Helen Reddy was very far from a one-hit-wonder. Indeed, she had more chart hits than practically any other solo female act of the 1970s. Yet in a way, the song most associated with her feels like it came from an artist who was never heard from before or since. “I Am Woman” arrived exactly as the Women’s Liberation Movement was at its initial peak of popular consciousness, and it was the perfect unofficial anthem, as coolly upbeat and authoritative as the singular voice delivering. The smash single invariably rattled some male observers who called it “angry” or even “man-hating.” That simply underlined the many things women needed liberating from — nobody called Sinatra a menace when he sang “My Way,” a no less straightforward hymn to self-determination.

But those who expected Reddy to be any kind of feminist spokesperson were disappointed, particularly when her later hits veered almost exclusively into bland mainstream pop — many of them, oddly, “story” songs about women driven by unrequited love (“Delta Dawn,” “Ruby Red Dress,” etc.). Her supple, slightly nasal voice and unornamented singing style remained a pleasure, as did her unassuming confidence as a performer on TV and elsewhere. But “I Am Woman” remained a fluke, a firm personal yet universal statement penned by an artist who otherwise stuck to the safer ground of covering other songwriters. The biopic of that same title which premiered on opening night of the Toronto Film Festival is likewise a bit of a letdown.

Unjoo Moon’s first narrative feature, with a screenplay by Emma Jensen (whose prior one for “Mary Shelley” reduced another interesting creative life to familiar tropes), has fair lookalike Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the expat Aussie singer, often dubbed by fair soundalike Chelsea Cullen. (The original voice is heard on some vintage recordings.) They do competent work, as do the design team tasked with recreating a roughly quarter-century span on modest means. But this pedestrian biopic doesn’t really convey the distinctiveness of Reddy’s appeal, let alone package it in a way likely to trigger a significant revival of interest in a major star largely forgotten now.

Though ostensibly based on Reddy’s memoir, that book had a flintiness that made readers grasp why she was able to propel herself to the top, while in this movie, we have no idea. She’s painted as little more than a nice woman with a nice voice … and a bad husband, who ultimately absconds with all the drama here, as well as her money. Feminism is frequently in the background. Yet this screen Reddy too often feels a passive participant in her own story.

“I Am Woman” begins with the singer arriving in 1966 New York, having been raised by showbiz parents and determined that any serious music career requires conquering America. But the recording contract she’s won turns out to be worthless, and crooning in cocktail lounges barely pays the rent. She’s considering returning home with her young daughter from an already-kaput first marriage when she meets talent agent Jeff Wald (Evan Peters).

They fall in love, moving together to Los Angeles after he promises, “You be the show, I’ll do the business. I’ll make you a star.” Still, he does nothing to help her career until she gets fed up enough to demand a studio session that yields her first successful single (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from “Jesus Christ Superstar”).

A similar feeling of personal protest led her to write “I Am Woman,” which appears to have dropped whole from the sky as presented here. Had Reddy written songs before? Why didn’t she do it later? A rote montage uses that track to take her from obscurity to stardom, with an eyeblink nod to her extensive TV career. (There’s none to her bigscreen appearances.)

Then suddenly it’s 1982 and she’s playing Vegas. It’s not even noted that by then her formidable run of hits had been over for five years. The focus shifts primarily to Reddy being a loving if too-frequently-absent mother while Wald is busy going off the rails on coke, snorting up the millions she’d made for them both.

Peters works hard in a showy role, but there’s a bit of “Cocaine Madness” to the substance-abusive histrionics here. Cobham-Hervey’s Helen seems more shrinking violet than the Reddy whose memoir burns bridges with her three ex-husbands so thoroughly that they’re referred to by number, not name. In the book she’s justifiably bitter to an extent, but also has a typically Aussie refusal to indulge in self-pity. That written voice seems stronger than the dramatized one here, no matter that our heroine is last seen reprising her greatest hit at a National Organization for Women rally in 1989.

The film does try to strengthen her feminist character credentials by giving the third (and only other) substantial role to Danielle Mcdonald as rock journalist Lillian Roxon, a fellow Aussie expat presented as Reddy’s best friend. The “Patti Cake$” actress is a real talent, but this is the kind of thankless sidekick part used solely to applaud and chide the protagonist, and then provoke tears upon dying prematurely. (The fudging of that event’s chronology is one of many biographical liberties taken here.)

Though undistinguished stylistically overall, “I Am Woman” does do a good job capturing a swath of the times. In particular, costume designer Emily Seresin and Nikki Gooley’s hair and makeup input work some transformative magic amplifying Cobham-Hervey’s turn as a star who could seem more casual than glam even in a Bob Mackie gown.

But the film doesn’t contextualize Reddy within the musical personalities of her era (beyond saying she sure wasn’t cock-rockers Deep Purple, another Wald client), so newbies may well come away with no idea why she had a unique niche in the ’70s entertainment landscape. Her musical legacy is mixed, but still worth re-evaluating, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about this uninspired tribute is that despite all good intentions, it doesn’t even make a very convincing case for that.

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