Making your first-full length feature is never easy, especially not when you decide to take on a biography. Director Unjoo Moon made that brave decision as her “I Am Woman” tells the story of the 1970s musician and activist Helen Reddy. Moon already had experience in bringing strong musical voices to life because of her short video “Tony Bennett & Amy Winehouse: Body and Soul” and the documentary “The Zen of Bennett”. It seemed a logical step to make another feature involving a tremendous musical legend and “I Am Woman” has some flaws, it’s still a vibrant, heart-warming and colourful movie.
Helen (played by the incredibly charming Tilda Cobham-Hervey) flies with her young daughter from Australia to New York because she believes she has won a recording contract with a major label. Once she arrives the Big Apple, the dream is shattered apart. That results in living in a cheap hotel room and having to deal with gigging for little money and building up a friendship with music Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald). Life in New York doesn’t seem so bad after all, even more so when she meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), dreaming of becoming a talent manager. Her life changes even more when she and Jeff decide to move to Los Angeles to pursue their music careers. Helen as the inspiring female artist, and Jeff as a great talent scout.
As we all know, dreams in the entertainment industry are tough to achieve, and that becomes clear straight away. Instead of performing on stage, Helen becomes a housewife to take care of her two children while Jeff is away, and instead of becoming a respected woman, she becomes a repressed one. After all the ‘I’m going to make you famous soon’ promises of her husband, Helen stands up and demands a fair chance to shake the music industry forever. Will she get that?
We all know that she will get that chance because otherwise, she wouldn’t have released 18 studio albums during her career. “I Am Woman” eventually went Platinum when it reached one million copies, which was a fine achievement, mostly because the Beatlemania dominated the ’70s. You can compare the current film industry (let’s leave out 2020) to that time as well. Many blockbusters are being made, and a smaller film like this one can’t count on the same attention. However, there are a few reasons why you should pay attention to “I Am Woman.”
The first one is without a doubt Tilda Cobham-Hervey (“Burn,” “Hotel Mumbai”). She brings the vulnerability, determination, passion for music, and sincerity to life in a heart-warming, glittery, and remarkable performance. The fact that this movie wasn’t made with the intention of bringing over-the-top entertainment to the screen is one of the strengths. Okay, she doesn’t perform the songs herself (credit to the incredibly talented Chelsea Cullen), but she still brings the depth and joy to the songs. There are two distinguishable sides to Jeff: the loving and dedicated husband (at the beginning) and the more frustrating and unsupportive one (more towards the end). Peters (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “American Animals”) knows how to put those sides wonderfully on-screen. Whether it’s during the charming and delicate love scenes or the more shouting and grim ones, he never overplays or underplays it.
However, while Helen and Jeff’s relationship is the main focus, it is mostly that friendship between Helen and Lillian that’s a delight to watch. Macdonald (“Bird Box,” “Patti Cake$”) her performance is very open, bright, and it welcomes you in straight away.
We also want to congratulate costume designer Emily Seresin (“The Hunter,” “The Invisible Man”) and cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Mary Poppins Returns,” “13 Hours”). Seresin gave Cobham-Hervey the chance to shine in every colourful and stylish outfits, and Beebe made sure that that sparkling and vividness comes perfectly to life.
“I Am Woman” didn’t become an excellent biography just yet because many important things were left out. The most obvious one is Reddy’s change brought to the women’s liberation during that very conservative time. You only get a glimpse of her struggle, and the moment she decided that something needs to be done. Still, you don’t get more than that. There are also no mentions of songwriter Ray Burton who contributed a lot to the song “I Am Woman” and Reddy’s most glorious years aren’t talked about either.
This movie was already screened at the 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and earlier this year at the Athena Film Festival and the Adelaide Film Festival. Now it hits UK cinemas and online platforms. In between that world premiere in Toronto and the UK release, we sadly had to say goodbye to Reddy herself. Still, thanks to this beautiful, warm, and welcoming tribute, we will never forget the musical gifted, world-changing, and tenacious singer she was.