In the 1970s, she was one of pop music’s biggest stars with 15 singles on Billboard Hot 100’s Top 40. Six of those made it to the top 10 and three hit number one. Though she won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1973, few people under the age of 40 today will have heard of her. If this were Jeopardy!, the correct question would be “Who was Helen Reddy?” That question and more are answered in the 2019 biopic of the singer that is only now coming to Hong Kong’s cinemas.
Named after her signature song, I AM WOMAN tells Reddy’s story from the time the Australian arrived in New York in 1966 with her three-year-old daughter in tow, to her rocky rise to the top of the global music charts, through to her penning and singing what ultimately became the anthem of the women’s movement. Along the way, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, HOTEL MUMBAI) meets and becomes best friends with another Aussie expatriate, writer Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, DUMPLIN’), who herself would go on to greatness, and promoter Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, DARK PHOENIX and TV’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY), who became her business manager and husband. As gilded as her life seemed to be to her fans, it was not that way at all as she was forever battling sexism in the industry. Wald, meanwhile, was developing a pretty severe cocaine habit that would ultimately destroy their marriage and leave her penniless.
As far as biopics go, I AM WOMAN is as straightforward as they come. Director Unjoo Moon and screenwriter Emma Jensen cover all the high- and lowlights in Reddy’s life in the US conveniently tweaking some of her story to fit the narrative. Not that any of that is problematic, mind you. I AM WOMAN is as innocuous as Reddy’s music. Sorry, I wasn’t a big fan. With the exception of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (written by Andrew Lloyd Webber), “You and Me Against the World” (co-written by Paul Williams) and her own song, “I Am Woman”, Reddy had a habit of picking really lousy songs to sing. Granted, two of them turned out to be hits too, but both are lyrically weak. Her chart-topping hit, “Delta Dawn”, has only one verse yet its chorus is repeated six times. That pales in comparison to “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)” whose “Leave me alone” refrain is repeated a whopping 43 times! Middle aged, suburban housewives who flocked to her Vegas shows didn’t seem to mind. Interestingly, she only wrote two songs — one being “I Am Woman”, which became her biggest hit. The other, “Think I’ll Write a Song”, she co-wrote with fellow Australian Peter Allen. It ended up as the B-side to another one of her biggest hits, “Angie Baby”.
Cobham-Hervey does a great job in the starring role, bringing a lot of heart to the production. Though she doesn’t do the singing (that’s left to Australian pop singer Chelsea Cullen), she got Reddy’s on-stage stance down pat. For those of us who remember the real Reddy, her performance is a very good facsimile. Unfortunately, Reddy, who passed away a few years ago, is pretty much an unknown now, which makes me wonder who in Hong Kong will come out to see this film. I AM WOMAN premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 and was released in several markets around the world in 2020. Given the recent political events in the US regarding women’s reproductive rights, it’s too bad the movie came out there two years ago. It’s incredibly relevant today. As Reddy sang, “No one’s ever gonna keep me down again.” Americans will see if that’s so on November 8th.
I AM WOMAN opens in Hong Kong today (October 13).
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