Rock star biopics have made a resurgence, with superstar names like Elton John and Queen drawing millions to the cinema – but it’s rare to see the life of a female artist – and an Australian one at that – depicted on the silver screen.
I Am Woman is about Helen Reddy – the first (of only two) Australian women to win a Grammy for Female Pop Vocal Performance – and who penned the hit single of the same name, that inadvertently became an anthem for the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.
In the movie we meet Helen (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) as she’s just starting out, trying to secure a record deal after one falls flat, then as she moves to New York and eventually LA having met her husband-come-manager Jeff Wald (X-MEN’s Evan Peters). After five years trying to land a contract Helen finally gets signed, and as her star begins to rise, her personal life and relationship to Jeff begin to crumble – no thanks to his nasty drug habit and the assumed pressures of being a man married to a feminist icon.
A Pioneer for Other Australian Artists
Helen Reddy isn’t talked about as much as other Australian icons of the era like Olivia Newton-John, Judith Durham or Paul Hogan, but she was one of the first to introduce Australian voices to the world – carving out a place for us in the American entertainment industry when opportunities were thin on the ground (and the only way to get one was through incessant cold-calling. On a landline. To be directly rejected by studio execs. No ‘being discovered on YouTube’ here!)
“Whether she intended to or not, Helen’s own desire to sing – and sing about what mattered to her as a woman, saw her become a powerful political activist.”
Whether she intended to or not, Helen’s own desire to sing – and sing about what mattered to her as a woman, saw her become a powerful political activist. For modern day pop fans, it can be hard to imagine a time where female artists didn’t have agency to sing about what they wanted to (however merchandised it may become), and to use their voices for causes that mattered to them. In the era of Taylor, Beyonce and Lady Gaga it’d be weird not to see celebrities aligned with particular political movements or moral standpoints.
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What I Am Woman shows us, is just how influential their voices can be – and how every social shift needs faces people can follow through it.
The Personal Cost of Fame
I Am Woman also yet again highlights the personal cost felt by so many who occupy our screens and stages, and how much of their own lives they miss by contributing entertainment to ours; Helen’s marriage and friendships decay as a result of the insecurities and demands of her industry, and – while she loves her kids dearly, they appear like disgruntled decorations in the background of an otherwise lavish life.
It’s a sad depiction of what fame and influence too often cost.
Perhaps it’s because these stories are unfortunately commonplace that I Am Woman sometimes feels like a ‘biopic-by-numbers’.
It features relevant historical landmarks, like renowned music journalist Lillian Roxon’s famed rock encyclopedia to which Jeff scoffs, “I’ll never read that”, and showcases outdated inflammatory marital narratives and Helen’s secret breakdowns behind all the success – which may all be true fuel to Helen’s fire, but appear on screen like boxes being ticked.
As a result I Am Woman falls short of being the Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman of 2020, but does encourage us to see the power of telling our own stories and boldly holding to our personal convictions.
I Am Woman is for mature audiences, and streaming on Stan now.