I Am Woman

 

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Looking back at the late Helen Reddy who felt that her songs were first and foremost for women.

 
I Am Woman

Tilda Cobham-Hervey

 

In recent years documentaries have become a prominent part of the cinema diet and one consequence of that is that films about singers and musicians now frequently take that form, the Elton John biopic Rocketman being the exception rather than the rule. Despite that, I Am Woman, which tells the story of the singer Helen Reddy, takes the traditional route and stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey in the lead role. She was previously seen here in a supporting role in Hotel Mumbai (2018) but in this debut feature by Unjoo Moon she is revealed as one of those actresses loved by the camera. Indeed, she is easily the best thing in this film which, although never seriously displeasing, disappoints by failing to realise the full potential of the material.

 

The debutant director is female as is the writer, so it's no surprise that they opt to look at Helen Reddy's life from a feminist angle. That's apt enough and not only because the films starts in 1966 (she had arrived in New York from Australia having won an opportunity to audition only to find herself denied the chance due to the appeal of The Beatles and others turning pop music into essentially a man's sphere). A fellow Australian, Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), a rock journalist, befriends Helen and they see themselves as two women against the world. And then, after Helen Reddy achieves fame with her song 'I Don't Know How to Love You', she finds a subsequent hit, 'I Am Woman' becoming an anthem for the women's movement. Quite appropriately a much later performance of it in Washington occurs at the film's climax.

 

If Cobham-Hervey is immediately engaging so too is the rapport between her and Macdonald in their scenes together. However, the temperature noticeably drops when Jeff Wild (Evan Peters) enters. He is the man who persuades Helen to make him her manager and then goes on to marry her. She may credit him with making her a star, but he treats her badly even before drugs and alcohol make matters worse and lead him to misuse their money. Unfortunately, there's considerable footage devoted to their relationship and, besides being rather banal, this emphasis results in the music being undersold. It would seem that Reddy herself is heard briefly, but the on-screen performances shown find Chelsea Cullen standing in well while Cobham-Hervey adroitly gives the impression that she doing the singing. However, all too often the songs are reduced to snippets or suffer visual cutaways in the middle. It is not until relatively late on that we find a song - 'Angie Baby' - being handled in a way that allows it to make a full impact.

 

Some reviewers have understandably been disappointed by the way in which I Am Woman jumps over much of Helen Reddy's career after 1982 and the later sections of the narrative do become too sketchy to satisfy. Perhaps the documentary format would have packed in more and done it to better effect, but I Am Woman is not without scenes of real appeal. It certainly marks out Tilda Cobham-Hervey as an actress to watch and the death last month of Helen Reddy at the age of 78 makes this release all too timely.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Matty Cardarople, Jordan Raskopoulos, Guy Murray, Molly Broadstock, Dusty Sorg, Rita Rani Ahuja, Coco Greenstsone, Scout Bowman.

 

Dir Unjoo Moon, Pro Rosemary Blight, Screenplay Emma Jensen, Ph Dion Beebe, Pro Des Michael Turner, Ed Dany Cooper, Music Rafael May, Costumes Emily Severin.

 

Goalpost Pictures/Deep Blue Pacific/West End Films/Screen Australia-Vertigo Releasing.
116 mins. Australia. 2019. Rel: 9 October 2020. Available in cinemas, Curzon Home Cinema and on digital platforms. Cert. 15.