★★★★ - NATIONAL POST
- A feminist anthem gets the performance it deserves in I Am Woman -
The performances – You and Me Against the World, the delightfully cracked Angie Baby, and of course the title tune, an anthem of feminism for almost 50 years – deserve to be seen and heard in the biggest room possible, preferably while swaying along to the music with a large crowd.
The woman in question is Helen Reddy, born in Melbourne in 1941, who came to New York City in 1966, a single mother with a three-year-old daughter and dreams of a music career. First-time feature director Unjoo Moon captures the tone of the times in that first establishing shot, as Reddy passes a billboard for ketchup with the woman in the ad proclaiming joyfully: “Even I can open it!”
Reddy didn’t achieve quick success – what kind of biopic would that be? – but she did find a good friend in music writer, budding feminist and fellow Aussie expat Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald). She also fell for and eventually married Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who also worked as her manager.
And while I Am Woman is, top to bottom, Reddy’s story, screenwriter Emma Jensen (Mary Shelley) does a fantastic job of fleshing out the supporting characters, especially Wald. What could have been a one-note misogynist with a cocaine habit becomes instead a complicated, conflicted character, of the era without being a caveman about it, trying to come to terms with being “Mr. Helen Reddy” as one journalist witheringly calls him. Biopics don’t usually devote this kind of time and energy to the realistic portrayal of a multifaceted marriage.
It’s a little odd that the story works as well as it does, given than Reddy seems to have had so few personal demons. Many a successful musical life story makes its fulcrum a battle against drugs, alcohol or other hedonistic pursuits – see Judy, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, just to pick the most recent examples. Reddy had talent and ambition to spare, but the film shows her as a remarkably steady human being.
That easygoing momentum also describes the film, which at times feels – to borrow a few more of her song titles – a bit too Peaceful, too Free and Easy. Reddy may have penned a rousing anthem for the women’s movement of the 1970s, but she didn’t confine herself to protest songs, and most of her performances make for apolitical easy listening.
But Cobham-Hervey’s radiant portrayal of Reddy carries the day, along with Moon’s direction, which flirts with didacticism but never quite falls into the trap of preaching to us; the nearest it comes is when Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady plays over the scene where Reddy and Wald split up. And it’s nimble storytelling – one scene uses a single song to montage Reddy from barroom gigs through a rise to fame and – wait, is she pregnant in that shot? – a second child.
In the background we see the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, with footage of famous opponent Phyllis Schlafly. In fact, the second time the title song plays in the film, the setting is a 1989 march in Washington, organized by the National Organization for Women, with Reddy coaxed out of semi-retirement by her daughter to perform it. It’s a proud and beautiful moment, and good luck not joining in at home with the chorus. I am strong … I am invincible …
- Chris Knight, NATIONAL POST
I Am Woman is now playing at Light House Cinema