Movie Review: An anthem, and the singer who lived it — “I Am Woman”

The bar isn’t unreasonably high for modern musical biographies. Make that “a hit is created/a star is born” moment work and let music and nostalgia carry the picture.

“I Am Woman” has more than that. A star-making turn by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and editing that emphasizes Helen Reddy’s not-quite-forgotten-place in the history of the women’s movement are saving graces for this not-all-you’d-hope debut feature by Unjoo Moon, whose previous credit is a Tony Bennett documentary.

But after an hour of preliminaries, in which we’ve seen single-mom Helen arrive in New York, struggle, courted by manager-then-husband/manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), rejected by record labels, she records that first hit.

The script’s arc then rushes us to that pinnacle moment, when all Reddy’s struggles in “a man’s world” and “a man’s business” comes to a head just as the Women’s Movement is remaking the culture.

And the music and the performance and the song’s reception in the culture spills off the screen, washes over you and reminds you what a moment that was, and how perfectly this “angry” anthem (Chris Parnell plays a clueless Capital Records exec who so-labels it), with Reddy’s fiesty, lilting performance of it, changed the world.

The middle acts of “I Am Woman” are its glory, the badgering that she had to do to get glad-hander Wald to push for a record deal, the reluctantly-agreed-to recording session — just for a single — that doesn’t go right until, recording the B-side, she taps into the perfect cover for her first “moment” — “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” That gorgeous ballad from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” reimagined as a simple love song, here reflects Reddy’s relationship with the tempestuous and eventually drug-added Wald.

Cobham-Hervey (“Hotel Mumbai”) doesn’t do her own singing, the real Reddy and Aussie Chelsea Cullen combine to give us that trademark catch in Reddy’s voice, the nasal, exultant way she hit the high notes. It’s just close enough to sound like the real thing, just different enough to make you wonder if our star did it herself.

Reddy’s relationship with Australian-born New York rock writer Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald) is present and accounted for, if thinly-developed.

Her co-writer on “I Am Woman,” Ray Burton, is written out of the picture (bad blood over royalties). And truthfully, that “creative process” stuff is missed.

Because far too much of the film is devoted to the marriage, domineering if not abusive, following the too-familiar path of egomania, paranoia and cocaine in its last stages. Drugs and shouting aside, Wald can’t have much to gripe about here. It’s a flattering portrayal of a William Morris mailroom guy who slowly-courts the single mom, playing chess with her and trying to get both of their careers started.

Peters (Quicksilver in an “X-Men movie) is solid enough in a role that requires some histrionics, but also that agent/manager’s swagger. Reddy is perhaps the only one who can’t see why a female ballad singer can’t get signed in the age of acid rock.

“It’s all about timing,” Wald counsels. Dragging her to the edge of Laurel Canyon just as LA singer-songwriters were about to take over music? Perfect timing.

Director Moon and screenwriter Emma Jensen (“Mary Shelley”) put extra care into tying Reddy’s rise to the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, properly depicting her as an artist-activist, not shy about fighting against Phyllis Schlafly (See Hulu’s “Mrs. America.”), gently batting down the sexist “Queen of Housewife Music” label that rocker Alice Cooper laid on her.

It’s not a great film, with a story that has too much “Lifetime Original Movie” slack and soap operatic touches for its own good. But as Jerry Wald says, “It’s all about timing.”

A movie on this woman and this song coming out this year, when a woman is running for vice president and women’s rights seem to be on the ballot and on everybody’s mind again? “The Glorias,” about Gloria Steinem, is coming to theaters and again, Hulu’s “Mrs. America.” I’m serious. SEE it.

“Hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore” is about to have another moment.

MPAA Rating: unrated, drug abuse, violence, profanity

Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald and Chris Parnell

Credits: Directed by Unjoo Moon, script by Emma Jensen. A Quiver release.

Running time: 1:56

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