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Review: Like the song, the Helen Reddy biopic ‘I Am Woman’ gives voice to female empowerment

Helen Reddy, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, accepts a Grammy in the movie "I Am Woman."
Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) accepts a Grammy in the movie “I Am Woman.”
(Quiver Distribution)

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Dubbed “The Queen of Housewife Rock,” 1970s Australian songstress Helen Reddy may not have maintained long-lasting name recognition among younger generations, but her 1971 song “I Am Woman” remains an indelible cultural touchstone and rallying cry. The unofficial anthem of the women’s rights movement and, now, International Women’s Day, the song gives voice to female empowerment with the unforgettable refrain, “I am woman, hear me roar.”

In the biopic “I Am Woman,” Reddy’s story is brought to life by a team of Australian women: screenwriter Emma Jensen, director Unjoo Moon, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who portrays Reddy, and Danielle Macdonald, who costars as Reddy’s friend, legendary rock journalist Lillian Roxon, the person attributed with introducing Reddy to the nascent feminist movement in the late 1960s.

“I Am Woman” follows the biopic formula closely. The film begins in 1966 in New York City, as young Helen, her toddler daughter Traci in tow, pursues her shot at a record contract after winning the singing competition show “Bandstand” back in Australia. It’s a classic dreamer-in-the-big-city beginning, as Helen endures dismissive interactions with male record executives and club owners, leaning on her fellow Aussie and only friend Lillian for advice and support. She soon meets her second husband and future manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), and though he wants to champion her, she has to push him to fight for her career.

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The poor treatment Helen receives from the men in her life motivates her to write the empowering anthem, but she’s mostly inspired by her friend Lillian and her daughter. The song she writes, of a collective group of women raising their voices, creates an image of strength that she hopes will inspire them, an image that she hopes to embody herself. Though the song is initially dismissed as “angry” and “man-hating,” Jeff sees the burgeoning women’s movement as potential record sales. It’s all business to Jeff, but he’s none too happy to be Mr. Helen Reddy when she becomes a star.

Reddy deserves the biopic treatment, especially for younger generations to discover her, but the details of her life and career are far more interesting and dramatic than even the film makes them out to be, glossed over in montage, bogged down in music movie cliches. Nevertheless, Cobham-Hervey is utterly captivating every moment she’s on screen. “I Am Woman” proves to be an incredibly moving film about the definitive work of Reddy’s career and the life of its own the song took on as an anthem of empowerment that’s not about the plight of being a woman but the power in being one.

“I Am Woman” positions the song as a galvanizing cultural moment in the push for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, which is bittersweet, considering it has yet to be ratified. The film could be a companion piece to the Hulu series “Mrs. America,” which also follows this movement, and like the series, the film dives into history not necessarily to show us how far we’ve come but to remind us how much we still have to fight for. As Reddy performs the song at the 1989 Mobilize for Women’s Lives rally in Washington, its power shines through, and for all the film’s minor flaws, it is deeply important to witness the impact of “I Am Woman” as an enduring, uplifting cry for freedom and empowerment.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘I Am Woman’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. `11, in limited release where theaters are open; also available on VOD


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