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Movie review: Helen Reddy biopic ‘I Am Woman’ purrs when it should roar

Ed Symkus
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Evan Peters frowns while Tilda Cobham-Hervey smiles in "I Am Woman."

You can’t take anything away from Helen Reddy. The Australian singer who moved to New York City in the mid-1960s with hopes of becoming a pop star made her dreams come true. She reached number one on the charts twice (“I Am Woman” and “Angie Baby”) and had a string of Top-20 hits in the 1970s. She beat the odds of garnering that sort of success.

Her story is compelling: Ambitious single mom with a 3-year-old daughter travels halfway around the world, is turned down by record companies, meets and marries the man who gets her career going, and achieves superstardom.

But the manner in which screenwriter Emma Jenson and director Unjoo Moon tell the story in “I Am Woman” isn’t very convincing or believable. The strongest component of the film is that it looks great (huzzahs to cinematographer Dion Beebe). Coming in at a close second is the probability that, as played by Australian actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Helen Reddy is a protagonist that every audience member will be rooting for. Then there are the problems.

It’s 1966. Reddy arrives in New York City under the mistaken impression that a contest she won in Australia has led to a recording contract at Mercury Records. No, she’s told, you’ve only won the opportunity to audition for us.

What to do? Move into a cheap hotel, take singing gigs at a small club for little pay, and get in touch with any fellow Australians you can find. Cue Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who writes about beauty tips and fashion, but holds on to her own dream of writing about music. With that friendship started, she meets and falls for aspiring music manager Jeff Wald, who convinces Reddy to trust in him to make her a star ... if she’ll marry him and move to L.A.

It’s at this point that Jenson and Moon start losing their grip on the credibility of the film. Jenson’s script is based on Reddy’s 2006 memoir “The Woman I Am,” but what’s up on the screen has an indelible soap opera feel to it. Jeff can’t find Helen a deal until, miraculously, he does. A recording session for a demo goes bad until, incredibly, it goes well. Phone calls to Lillian, still in New York, reveal that she’s constantly coughing (you know what THAT means in a movie). Lillian writes a piece about the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote, and when Helen reads it, her eyes light up. (Could that be the seed of her anthem “I Am Woman?”) The demo she records - a cover of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” - hits the charts, and leads to Capitol Records wanting an album. But she considers the songs they offer her to be demeaning to women (That’s gotta be the seed.) One night, watching little Traci sleeping, Helen has an epiphany, grabs a pencil, and scrawls “I am strong, I am invincible.” on a pad (Aha! The seed!)

Sorry, even if this did happen, the way it’s presented here doesn’t feel real. But the bigger complaint goes to director Unjoo Moon. She has allowed Cobham-Hervey to portray Reddy as a nice, unassuming, ever-smiling person who flashes signs of a strong will only when she’s backed up against a wall. She’s permitted Peters to present Wald as a hot-headed, cocaine-addled guy who’s in way over his head. Then she put them together numerous times without tempering the screen behavior of either one. To put it civilly, their scenes are uneven and unconvincing.

She also throws in cliché-ridden segments of the song “I Am Woman” taking off, and of the friendship between Helen and Lillian evaporating in an instant. A political edge is too briefly addressed with mentions of the Equal Rights Amendment, the National Organization for Women, and anti-women’s rights ambassador Phyllis Schlafly.

The film is well-intentioned and earnest in trying to tell Reddy’s story, but it’s misguided and tasting of vanilla. Helen Reddy had plenty of catchy, beautifully sung songs. They deserved to be hits. And she was strong in her convictions to get ahead in a tough, competitive, male-run business. The story of her life is enjoyable, but deserves better.

“I Am Woman” opens in theaters and On Demand on Sept. 11.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“I Am Woman”

Written by Emma Jensen; directed by Unjoo Moon

With Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald

Unrated