‘I Am Woman’ is your Semi-Annual Groovy Reminder of the Power of Music

Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) travels out of the subway in a pink skirt-suit, holding her little girl’s hand. She walks amongst everyday New Yorkers in a half-lit subway station, heading for the light above. She is woman, hear her roar… The shot is as clear an opener as possible, cutting right to the chase in establishing I Am Woman’s mission ― to tell the story of Helen, of how she rose to music stardom and penned one of the most recognisable feminist anthems in history despite The Man (read: many, many men) trying to keep her down.

The film treads the well-worn path of the musician biopic: the classic early-career record label rejection, the sudden bolt of inspiration to write the hit song, the slow climb up the charts. I’ve almost given up hoping that mainstream diva films will deviate from this script, so I enjoyed this film for the undaring crowd-pleaser it is. These films are satisfying when on form, and I Am Woman hits almost every note.

We begin with Helen as a single mother who has travelled from Australia to New York to audition for a record label. The execs pass on her ― boy bands are a much bigger deal, I mean, have you heard of The Beatles!? A dejected Helen almost gives up on her dreams, until she meets her husband and manager Jeff (Evan Peters) at a party. Peters’ performance is excellent, though he and Cobham-Hervey lack the chemistry to fully sell the love story that makes up the film’s opening act. Through all of Helen’s struggles as a single mother, early failures, and eventual 70’s stardom, Cobham-Hervey is the film’s steady, luminous centre. Her performance, coupled with Chelsea Cullen’s gorgeous vocal renditions of Reddy’s biggest hits, make the on-stage scenes sparkle. 

Cobham-Hervey renders the emotional rollercoaster of Reddy’s life a believable and arresting drama, never more so than when the film turns to Helen’s relationships with other women. Her struggles to connect with her daughter amidst a life of fame and touring, and her complex friendship with Australian rock journalist and DJ Lilian Roxon, are empathetic and nuanced, feeling truer to life than her more formulaic, at times generic relationships with men. Roxon is a fascinating subject in her own right; her journey to writing the first encyclopaedia of rock n’ roll has faded into relative obscurity, and hearing her story told alongside Helen’s is a wonderful bonus. I’m glad I know her name.

Beyond its commitment to passing the Bechdel Test early and often, the film’s subject matter is inherently feminist, and screenwriter Emma Jensen’s dialogue highlights the barrage of doubt and sexism women were subjected to in the 1960’s. While it sometimes edges toward cliché, the scenes are mostly familiar because of the misogyny Reddy endures. The men call their secretaries ‘sweetheart’ and the male members of Helen’s band are paid more than her because they have ‘families to feed’. These are real situations women faced and still face, but the script’s steady stream of Chauvinist 101 one-liners diminishes some of its emotional weight.

Unsurprisingly given its subject matter profiling a Caucasian family in the 60’s and 70’s, the film is overwhelmingly white, with actors of colour serving only background roles on screen. Therein lies the film’s limits as a piece of feminist cinema. It profiles a woman coming to power amidst feminism’s second wave, a fight which is often noted to have alienated and excluded the struggles of Black women and other women of colour. I Am Woman does well within this limited scope of feminist exploration, understandable given its period-piece status, showing us what kind of women ― white, middle class, conventionally attractive ― were allowed to succeed in the 1970’s. Still, its existence as an ode to a bygone era of women’s liberation is a welcome reminder of both the strength of early-wave feminists and the strides toward intersectionality the movement has made since. It reminds us of the power of music ― the song ‘I Am Woman’ is a timeless reminder of women’s fearlessness and refusal to accept oppression, and its status as the anthem of the feminist movement remains well deserved.

Even more satisfying is how well women are represented behind the camera ― the director, screenwriter, editor and producer are all women ― and it would have been a delight to see this film distributed on cinema screens throughout Australia. Like Helen, director Unjoo Moon has had her own winding path to fame in the United States. Born in South Korea, Moon was raised in Australia and began her career as a journalist before training at AFTRS and the prestigious American Film Academy. Sadly, the film’s cinematic release in 2020 was not to be; its patchy national cinema rollout is yet another casualty of COVID-19. Hopefully I Am Woman’s availability on streaming service Stan will ensure it gets the eyes it deserves, because the visual impact of the film is striking. Moon and crew filmed mostly in Sydney, with just over two days spent filming in actual Los Angeles. Visiting the neon-drenched New York of the late sixties and then the beachy LA and glitzy Vegas of the seventies is a sumptuous kind of escapism for this year of homebound isolation. 

The integration of archival footage injects a sense of verisimilitude that helps sell the film’s period setting. Coupled with a decidedly groovy soundtrack of midcentury bangers and Rafael May’s stirring original score, the film is a vintage dream; it’s no wonder that a TIFF screening ended with a sing-along standing ovation. And in that, I Am Woman does what great music films should, in all but requiring the viewer to sing along. Despite its lack of a bold new direction for the genre, this film is a charming take on the genre, ultimately doing justice to Helen Reddy’s remarkable life in music.

I Am Woman is available to stream on Stan.

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Caitlin Wilson is an Australian writer, academic and horror film tragic. Her work can be read in Voiceworks, Flip Screen, The Dialog, and Mascara Literary Review among others.

Caitlin Wilson