Helen Reddy’s discography — she’s best known for the 1971 hit “I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” — was purely of its time. But I Am Woman, a new biopic about the Seventies Australian pop singer, insists that the song’s message is eternal. One is struck by the filmmakers’ forced relevance: Reddy (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey) lands in New York in 1966 and walks past a subway ketchup ad that demeans women. We are meant to be #TimesUp, #MeToo triggered.
A conventional rise-to-fame story isn’t good enough for I Am Woman’s purposes. Every moment of Reddy’s career and goal-oriented, single-mother personal life is used for a female-agency message. She bonds with a body-shamed fellow Aussie music-industry immigrant (Danielle Macdonald); an early recording offer falls through; and the agent-lover Jeff Wald (Peter Evans) whom she quickly marries, soon turns out to be a male chauvinist, cocaine-addicted abuser. Arriving in Hollywood, her domestic drudgery includes wearing a Jeanne Dielman outfit and pushing a Hoover vacuum cleaner. All that frustration inspires Reddy to write the “unofficial anthem” of the women’s movement that’s in full gear.
Fact is, “I Am Woman” exemplifies one of most blatantly craven acts in pop-music history. Actress Cobham-Hervey, who resembles a tall, wily Mia Farrow, accurately conveys Reddy’s defensive, tomboyish stance (while Chelsea Cullen expertly dubs the singing), but it’s husband Jeff who explains the song to record execs: “What my wife is saying is she’s tapped into something.” This cynicism, followed by footage of women’s-lib street protests, is confirmed when Reddy wins the Best Pop Vocal Grammy (beating out Roberta Flack and Barbra Streisand) and gives an acceptance speech that taunted the FCC: “I’d like to thank God because She makes everything possible.”
The women’s-rights movement has a different, harsher tone today. I Am Woman exploits that change without coming to terms with it. Australian director Unjoo Moon (wife of cinematographer Dion Beebe) and screenwriter Emma Jensen justify Reddy’s careerist opportunism — her restless housewife’s intimidation and sense of entitlement. Scenes of showbiz ruthlessness are left to the man who is brutish enough to unscrew that bottle of ketchup. Pure-heart Helen recalls the ambitious fashion model Hannah Schygulla played in Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), whom scholar Peter Matthews described as a woman “who unapologetically exploits her natural capital to grasp the main chance.”
I Am Woman distorts “the main chance” in #MeToo terms — as a blameless instance of feminist will, just a step on the road to becoming a political icon. Asked “When is a woman liberated?” Reddy answers, “You mean when is a ‘person’ liberated? When they’re no longer discriminated against by society.” She dresses like her husband in a mannish green velvet suit and open-collar shirt. She watches TV with disdain as conservative Phyllis Schlafly warns that the Equal Rights Amendment “will give more power to the federal government.” When Dan Rather on CBS adds, “opponents charge that the ERA will legalize prostitution and homosexual marriages; that it will require unisex bathrooms and destroy the family,” Reddy huffs, “Well that’s ridiculous!” (Meanwhile, her transsexual maid prefers watching Dallas.)
The remaining rags-to-royalty plot restages Reddy’s craven song catalog. (“I want to get back to my roots and do a jazz album,” she muses out of nowhere.) Those hits were always insipid (“Delta Dawn”), maudlin (“Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”), self-pitying (“You and Me against the World”), or risible (“Leave Me Alone”). Her good, strong voice and clear intonations pushed formulaic narratives about mistreated women that we’re now meant to hear with fresh hostility. This backfires on “Angie Baby” where the lines “It’s so nice to be insane / No one asks you to explain” sound downright Hillary-esque.
Rebooted for Millennial consumption, “I Am Woman” remains a damnably catchy novelty tune, but this movie raises the cultural problem: Do we learn from the past or reinterpret it to suit the moment? Reddy’s perspicacious lyric “Look how much I gained” is easily overlooked by fanatics.