When Helen Reddy performs at a 1989 women’s march at the end of I Am Woman, one almost expects to see a #PussyGrabsBack sign waving in the crowd. Reddy’s 1971 hit “I Am Woman” sadly hasn’t aged a day. Her song and her life’s story receive the biopic treatment in I Am Woman, and this inspiring and empowering film reminds audiences that many of the same fights for equality from decades’ continue.
I Am Woman, which world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival as the opening night film of the Special Presentations programme, is perfectly timed for the era of Trump and right-wing populism that threatens to shove women’s rights back a hundred years. Directed by Unjoo Moon, the film is a conventionally straightforward music biopic, if a solidly produced one that’s a sure-fire crowdpleaser to boot. The film stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) in a soulful, completely committed performance as Reddy. The 24-year-old ingénue acts her heart out while bringing to life a story that’s nearly 50 years old and the extent to which the contemporary seeps into I Am Woman can’t be lost on the film’s audience.
Reddy arrives in New York City from Australia in 1966, wide-eyed and eager to start a career in music. But a producer at Mercury Records is far more interested in her ass than her voice, she receives a much-needed reality check that will fuel her success. Helen goes from dive bar to dive bar, taking any gig she can to provide for her three-year-old daughter Traci and get any exposure that might launch her career. Moon’s mighty staging of Helen’s early struggle indicates just how far the star-to-be is slumming it, playing in shabby, dankly-lit clubs littered with empty tables and drunk single men. Talk about rock bottom.
Reddy’s song is a tale of sisterhood, though, so it’s only appropriate that she finds her rock in a fellow woman. She befriends ex-pat Aussie Lillian Roxon (a scene-stealing Danielle Macdonald), the noted “Mother of Rock” who is in the thick of writing her soon-to-be legendary encyclopedia of rock n roll. Their friendship fuels I Am Woman as Helen and Lillian support one another in their quest to enjoy the same careers and lives that men do. As Lillian says, music is changing everything. Being in the rock scene puts the women at the centre of a struggle as Second Wave Feminism dominates every headline and newsreel clip that Moon peppers in the frame.
When Helen finally writes “I Am Woman,” which comes in a moment of inspiration when she sees Traci struggle at school, it doesn’t offer the moment of revelatory inspiration that’s become a biopic cliché. (Cough, cough, Bohemian Rhapsody.) Instead, Helen just sits down and writes with a pen after seeing her daughter struggle. The gravity of her song comes later, when all the men at the record label dismiss “I Am Woman” as angry man-hating women’s lib music. Helen’s husband and manager, Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), defends the song in his own backhanded way by saying that even women’s libbers are customers and that the studio can just bury the song on the album. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nothing about Reddy’s struggle is especially extraordinary, but that’s what makes the film so effective. Her struggle is every woman’s struggle. She fights for her space and her right to enjoy both a family and a career and to be paid at least as much as the male members of the band receive for supporting her. The film charts Helen Reddy’s meteoric rise and fall as “I Am Woman” becomes the anthem for the women’s movement and a chart-topping, career-making success before Wald blows their fortune on cocaine and champagne. The film taps into the ordinariness of Reddy’s struggle and amplifies the universality of her song as she lives day to day with a partner made toxic by her success.
The film also speaks to the current generation of women continuing the fight of their mothers and grandmothers. Reddy’s granddaughter Lily Donat echoes “I Am Woman” by performing the powerful original song “Revolution” in the film. The song appears early in the film as Helen and Lillian consider their futures while taking in the music scene of New York’s coffee bars, and it returns in the final credits after Reddy’s victorious performance of “I Am Woman” for the crowds in ’89. The song and the film offer an inspiring call to action for women and allies to win the fight once and for all.