In December of 1972, Helen Reddy’s song, I Am Woman, hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Perhaps more significantly—for the Ms. perspective—is that it also became the anthem of the women’s liberation movement.
Now, over 50 years later, we finally get to hear the inspiring story of the woman behind it.
I Am Woman—a new feature film by Australian director Unjoo Moon, premiering in the U.S. on demand and in theaters on September 11—is the first biopic about the Australian musical icon who so powerfully made her mark in American feminism.
“I really felt that this was a story that not only I wanted to tell,” Moon told Ms., “but it was the kind of movie that I wanted to see.”
Part of Moon’s drive to use the film to illustrate the powerful impact of Reddy’s music—and not simply Reddy herself—was her own experience growing up in Australia.
“I remember it so clearly … when Helen’s music used to come on the radio, how it used to affect my mother and her friends … these women in my life, they would change. They would be sitting in the front of the station wagon, driving the car, and suddenly the song would come on and they’d wind down their window and let their hair loose in the breeze and put their fists up in the air and suddenly become stronger and more independent. I guess I’d never forgotten what that music did.”
The impact of Moon watching these women in her life become so empowered by Reddy’s music is clear in the film—as is the surrounding sexism that undoubtedly made those women crave such empowerment.
The film, in fact, opens with a backdrop of sexism. Literally.
As a young Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and her daughter, Traci, step off the subway into New York after moving from Australia, they walk towards an advertisement which shows a woman holding a jar of ketchup. The woman in the ad proclaims, “Even I can open it!”
The opening scene is deeply familiar in the canon of movies-about-New-York, but Moon skillfully warps the classic entrance into the Big Apple with a clear statement that this movie will be about more than music. Reddy is not just a young hopeful looking for her big break; she is a mother, an immigrant (albeit, quite a privileged one) and has already encountered institutional sexism.
Reddy’s life in New York turns out to be less than what she expected. She is struggling to make ends meet for her and Traci when she meets Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), the soon-to-be-famous rock journalist. The two women party together, examine life together and support one another, together.
“You and me against the world,” becomes their motto—and the title of one of Reddy’s later hit songs. The portrayal of female friendship between the two is honest, powerful and a true delight to witness. Roxon has a strong and unwavering belief in feminism, which she imparts to Reddy.
Roxon thus leads Reddy to two (somewhat opposing) elements that will inform the majority of her life: feminism and Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), the Bronx-born-and-bred man who would later become Reddy’s husband and manager.
Wald’s entrance into the film is initially positive. He is portrayed as a nice guy who is uniquely—among the other men in the film—not-sexist. The initial banter between Wald and Reddy includes him saying, “I’m going to make a million dollars by the time I’m 30,” and Reddy replying, “Well, I’m going to make two million. But good for you, keep it modest.”
It’s fun. It’s cute. It’s nice to see a mutually supportive romantic relationship, and Wald seems deeply devoted to helping Reddy succeed. Finally, a man who’s not afraid of an ambitious woman!
But upon moving to LA later in the film, Wald does not promote Reddy’s career, despite his promise to do so. Instead, he complains that she does not clean the house and only “bitches and moans.” It seems like the film should revolt against Wald at this point, but it doesn’t. Reddy apparently sees no larger issue with his shift in language or respect for her. After arguing, she finally forces him to repeatedly call a producer on her behalf.
But even in this scene, seemingly brimming with sexist ammunition, Moon pulls her punches a bit; Reddy smiles demurely as Wald calls, as if he hadn’t spent months ignoring his job as her manager and being somewhat of a nasty husband to boot.
Regardless, thanks to Reddy’s fierce determination, her career takes off. The film is bolstered throughout by real, archival footage from women’s marches, Shirley Chisholm’s campaign, ERA work and interviews with Phylis Schlafly. History is emphatically present—and importantly so—from start to finish.
Viewers are also graced with multiple full performances of some of Reddy’s most famous songs, from “Angie Baby” to “You and Me Against the World” to, of course, “I Am Woman.”
Reddy’s inspiration for the track comes from multiple sources: her feelings of suffocation as a housewife, Roxon’s articles, as well as her relating to Reddy the experience of the feminist movement in New York—but the defining moment happens when Reddy is watching her young daughter sleeping. Suddenly, she gets up and writes down, in crayon, “I am strong. I am invincible.”
It’s easy to get chills.
But even as the song blows up and Reddy’s identity as a feminist grows, Wald’s character deteriorates. He becomes addicted to cocaine, starts wasting all of Reddy’s hard-earned money, becomes verbally and near-physically abusive towards Reddy and ultimately cannot deal with the blow to his masculinity—that his wife is the primary breadwinner.
Almost worst of all, he is able to convince Reddy to abandon Roxon as a friend. Given that their friendship so drove Reddy’s narrative and her journey into feminism, it is supremely disappointing when Wald so easily tears it apart.
In real life, Reddy and Wald suffered a messy divorce, which is not shown in the film. Instead, the two are portrayed largely as a power couple with some issues, who ultimately just can’t make it work. A 1975 article in People Magazine about the couple opened with the egregious line, “She is woman, hear her roar; but he is husband-supermanager, hear him roar even louder.” The film offers rather little acknowledgment of the magnitude of the aggressive and sexist turn Wald’s character takes.
Bad men are often key as villains in great films, but the audience is left to unravel Wald’s flaws. His issues are showcased in the film, but the verdict on them is left largely unspoken.
Even Moon does not view him as a particularly bad guy. While emphasizing that the bulk of the story is about Reddy’s career, Moon told Ms.,
“The love story is such an important part of the movie because without it … you wouldn’t have Helen’s success. And she and Jeff were kind of an amazing team … they really achieved quite a lot together.”
The film’s last segment opens years after the deterioration of her marriage, when Reddy is living alone in LA, and Traci, now an adult (Molly Broadstock) returns to ask her mother to perform at NOW’s Mobilize for Women’s Rights March in Washington D.C.
Reddy, at this point in the film, hasn’t performed in years and has, in fact, sworn off the stage forever. And yet Traci convinces her to sing again, for feminism.
Traci’s centrality in the film and in this scene is perfect; she was the one person who was truly by Reddy’s side since she stepped off the train in New York; she was the inspiration for I Am Woman; and she became an adult within (and sometimes, it seems, despite) her mother’s wild success. Ending the movie with her as the reason Reddy sings again is enough to bring viewers to tears.
But that isn’t all; as a part of her pleas to get her mother to sing, Traci shows Reddy the liner notes that Roxon wrote for her years ago, before their falling out. Reading these are clearly what ultimately move Reddy to agree to perform, and the symbolic power of that—the woman who brought her to feminism and self-empowerment being the reason she returns to the stage—cannot be understated.
Reddy begins her journey as an artist with and supported by women, and ends that way too, perhaps even more so, as she stands on a stage surrounded by feminists and sings the song that inspired so many.
“Apart from understanding the woman behind the music better,” Moon told Ms.:
“I hope that [the women who see I Am Woman] walk away feeling really inspired by the movie and inspired by the things that women have done before us, and still walk away feeling like we all have work to do … We can affect change and try to make [an] impact, as women.”
The final title card of the movie reminds viewers the ERA has yet to be passed, which Moon noted as highly intentional; in fact, in noting it, she touches on the most beautiful part of the story—the fact that it is one that extends beyond just Helen Reddy, even beyond the years in which the film takes place.
I Am Woman gracefully lines up Helen Reddy’s life with the ERA and the feminist movement, and makes her story—as are all the stories of women who are brave enough to stand up and speak up—one of revolution.
This is what makes I Am Woman well worth the watch: It is not just a story about any one person, it is a story about a movement. And one that still has work to do today.