Helen Reddy never had the hippie/poet/singer/songwriter cool cred factor of a Joni Mitchell or a Carole King or a Carly Simon in the 1970s. When Alice Cooper affectionately dubbed Reddy “The Queen of Housewife Rock,” she wasn’t offended. She thought it was fitting.
But Helen Reddy was hardly a stereotypical throwback housewife of the “Mad Men” era. When she arrived in New York from Australia in 1966, she was a single mother with a 3-year-old daughter, very little money — and years of struggle ahead of her before she would break through with a string of hit singles, including the feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” which to this day carries a powerful and timely message.
Reddy’s story is given the standard, time-honored biopic treatment in “I Am Woman,” which checks off just about every cliché imaginable — and yet wins us over, in large part due to the star-power performance of Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy. Not only does Cobham-Hervey bear a striking resemblance to Reddy, she perfectly captures Reddy’s easy grace onstage — not to mention her warmth, her strength as a mother and her fierce determination to make her voice heard.
Director Unjoo Moon (working from Emma Jensen’s script, which draws on Reddy’s memoirs) is faithful to Reddy’s real-life story, though “I Am Woman” rarely misses the opportunity to eschew subtlety and turn up the Corny Meter. When Helen and her best friend, rock journalist/gossip columnist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), make a pact to stay friends forever, they say, “It’s you and me against the world,” which becomes the title of a Reddy single. Same goes for “That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady,” which follows scenes of Helen’s volatile husband/manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters) verbally abusing her and betraying her.
“I Am Woman” kicks off in New York City, where aspiring singer Helen and aspiring talent manager Jeff meet-cute and share dreams together and eventually take a leap of faith and move to Los Angeles, with Jeff promising Helen he’s gonna make her a star. Fast forward a bit, and we find the manic, back-slapping Jeff devoting all his time and energy to his rock band clients, while Helen is stuck at home as her career stalls out. When Helen finally gets the chance to record a demo, the intended single falls flat — but the B-side, a cover of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” captures the attention of the record label and reaches the Billboard charts. A potential star just might have been born.
In a show-stopping scene, Reddy performs “I Am Woman” for the first time in a small club and destroys the audience. This serves as the launching point for the song to become a massive hit — and more important, a theme for the women’s movement. Director Moon has the confidence in the material to go with a full-length performance number, which has the effect of making us feel we’re in that audience, experiencing something unforgettable. (Props to Chelsea Cullen, who dubbed the vocals.) Helen Reddy is on her way to becoming a global star, with all the perks and all the perils that go with it.
With Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe most likely setting the tone, “I Am Woman” expertly re-creates touchstone moments of Reddy’s career, from Helen on tour to Helen hosting a TV show to Helen winning the 1973 Grammy for her performance of “I Am Woman” and famously thanking God “because SHE makes everything possible.” The more successful Helen becomes, the more resentful Jeff becomes, and the more they’re at odds — an unhealthy situation made much worse by Jeff’s drug abuse, which turns him paranoid and violent.
Thanks to a hairstyle change here, a wardrobe update there, a touch of makeup here and there, and of course the talents of the actor, Tilda Cobham-Hervey convincingly plays Helen from a young, unknown hopeful to a chart-topping star to an artist at a certain point in her career who accepts her relevancy is behind her — until she performs “I Am Woman” at a women’s rights rally in Washington, D.C. in 1989, and sees how it resonates with a whole new generation. It’s the biopic equivalent of the “touchdown” moment in a sports movie: We fully expect it, we can feel the overt tug on our heartstrings — but we still welcome it.