Now that “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, has been pushed back to early 2021, you may find yourself craving the cinematic story of a pop diva other than Elton John or Freddie Mercury. You are in luck as we now have Unjoo Moon’s “I Am Woman” (Quiver Distribution), the Helen Reddy biopic, available on-demand and in theaters.
Bracketed by her 1966 arrival in New York and her 1989 comeback performance at the Mobilize for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C., the story of the career trajectory of Helen Reddy (played with gusto by Tilda Cobham-Hervey), as well as her turbulent personal life, plays like a Lifetime movie with curse words. Reddy, a single mother of Traci, won an audition for a recording contract with Mercury Records. But her timing couldn’t have been worse. The Beatles were all the rage and, according to the suits at the label, female singers couldn’t compete (although Petula Clark didn’t do too badly). So she came all the way from Sydney to New York for naught.
Reddy crashed in a roach-infested hotel with Traci and tried to make a living performing in nightclubs where she was paid less than the band. Fortunately, she connected with fellow Aussie transplant Lillian (Danielle Macdonald of “Patti Cake$”), a journalist who took Reddy under her wing and showed her the hotspots of the era including Max’s Kansas City. It was at Lillian’s apartment where, as fate would have it, Reddy met Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), a talent manager with the William Morris Agency.
Reddy and Jeff hit it off. He begins showing up at the hotel. Things start getting serious between them. Jeff attends one of Reddy’s nightclub gigs and is impressed by her talent. He asks if he can be her manager. He convinces Helen to move to Los Angeles for her career. They get married. He becomes the manager for novelty act Tiny Tim and for hard rock band Deep Purple, totally neglecting Helen’s career.
Back in New York, asthmatic Lillian continues to make a name for herself as a journalist. She sends Reddy a newspaper clipping of her story about her experience at the women’s march, igniting a spark in Helen.
Eventually, Jeff is able to get Reddy a contract with Capitol Records to record a single. That song, Reddy’s rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”), becomes a hit. Lillian is also experiencing some success with the publication of her “Rock Encyclopedia.” Proud of her friend, Reddy asks Lillian to write the liner notes for her debut album.
Not quite an overnight sensation, Reddy achieved her greatest fame with “I Am Woman,” the titular song she co-wrote for her third album (which is also the name of this movie). The timing of the song, as the Equal Rights Amendment was garnering much attention, made the song the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement. Equally important is that the song was the first of a string of several hit singles for Reddy.
However, fame comes at a price. Reddy and Lillian grow apart and a tragic event makes the situation even sadder. Reddy and Jeff’s marriage, not on solid ground from the start, rapidly disintegrates, driven in large part by Jeff’s bottomless coke habit.
It's a familiar (and true) story (remember “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”) of macho domination, abuse and jealousy. Like Tina Turner, Helen Reddy is also a survivor, and “I Am Woman” is an acknowledgment of that.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.