I Am Woman, 2020.
Directed by Unjoo Moon.
Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Danielle Macdonald, Evan Peters, Damien Strouthos, Matthew Cardarople, Dusty Sorg, Toks James, Gus Murray, Rita Rani Ahuja, Jordan Raskopoulos, Molly Broadstock, Michael-Anthony Taylor, and Chris Parnell.
The story of 1970s musician and activist Helen Reddy.
It’s been said countless times before and it will be said many more times in the future, but biopics need an angle beyond cramming decades of someone’s life into two hours, as it usually results in a sloppy product with rushed pacing. Directed by Unjoo Moon crafting her narrative feature debut (scripted by Emma Jensen and based on Helen Reddy’s autobiography), I Am Woman falls into the same trap although it does attempt to approach the 20 plus years spanning story with a connecting thread of Helen Reddy making sacrifices to not only achieve fame but inspire her daughter.
After a meeting with a record label falls apart due to sexism, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Hervey giving an empowering performance that should get her noticed from filmmakers around the world) befriends aspiring rock ‘n roll journalist Lillian Roxon (a somewhat miscast Danielle Macdonald with a wonky accent and given some painfully forced dramatic scenes) who encourages her to stay in America (instead of accepting rejection by going back to Australia) and to pursue her dreams, in turn, setting a role model example for her daughter. Of course, Helen would go on to be one of the most accomplished musicians of her time and an icon to the second-wave feminist movement with the titular song serving as an anthem (although it should be noted that Australian popstar Chelsea Cullen does the actual singing in the movie aside from a number by the real Helen Reddy’s actual granddaughter, both of them fine enough covering landmark songs and tapping into Helen’s soul-stirring gentleness and inspirational conviction) whereas Lillian Roxon would break unprecedented ground of her own as a high profile journalist once penning a strongly received rock ‘n roll encyclopedia.
Also introduced to the mix is the smooth-talking Jeff Ward that would go on to be Helen’s lover, manager, supporter, and eventually, a self-destructive drug-addicted liability. Evan Peters is terrific in the role resembling Ray Liotta in Goodfellas if you replaced gangster crime with cutthroat music management. We get a taste that he is also a fairly toxic partner early on (it’s actually quite scary how he immediately flips a switch into an aggressive hothead as soon as Helen agrees to separate herself from Lillian and move from New York to Los Angeles with him) cluing us in that the dynamic is going to get a whole lot more dysfunctional once Helen achieves fame. Again, the performances from Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Evan Peters are fantastic that will open up new doors, and in the case of Peters, sheds that X-Men Quicksilver pretty boy persona proving that there is a capable actor with serious chops underneath his previous comedic relief work.
For those keeping up, I haven’t mentioned Helen’s daughter again, or the son she would go on to have with Jeff. That’s a problem considering I Am Woman tries to tie the pain and glory together with some mother-daughter bonding that flat-out doesn’t work. The songs (as per usual with musical biopics there are numerous performances that pause the narrative while using song lyrics to greater contextualize ongoing plot developments) and gradually disintegrating love life takes center stage, with the offspring taking a backseat until it’s convenient to make for a rousing ending note that, like most things about I Am Woman, only works based on the strength of the acting alone.
It’s tough to decide whether to blame Emma Jensen’s script or assume that large portions of important context were cut in the editing room (which would be doubly frustrating because there are times when the film does an outstanding subtle job at expressing the passage of time.) Helen’s daughter goes from ridiculing her about focusing on Las Vegas performances rather than being in her life, except 10 minutes later the film flashes forward a few years to where they are tight as can be. There is also plenty of sections where it feels like the film doesn’t know if it wants to vilify Jeff as a horrible man and verbally abusive spouse or complicated person that couldn’t help but react negatively when the chips were down and that too easily gave into cocaine following Helen Reddy becoming a Grammy-winning phenomenon.
Yet, it all soars by with electricity and vibrant costume design (depending on how the rest of the awards season shakes out, Quiver could actually have a contender here for Costume Design but only if the Academy decides to get off its high horse and check out some smaller titles) and empowering songs juxtaposed with the woman’s right movement throughout the 70s and 80s. There’s so much actively wrong with the structure and editing, not to mention the formulaic trajectory of the biopic, but the lively cast elevates the material. The performances and visuals roar, but not much else does.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com