Karla Peterson: New Helen Reddy biopic is timely, watchable and frustrating

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Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen Reddy, who in 1966 landed in New York with her three-year-old daughter, a suitcase and $230 in her pocket in 'I am Woman.' - Transmission Films/Transmission Films/TNS

Within the first 15 minutes of “I Am Woman,” the new biopic on the Grammy-winning singer Helen Reddy, our heroine is harassed and belittled by a record company executive (“I can’t do anything with a female singer,” he says, after offering her a cocktail and invading her personal space); harassed and underpaid by a nightclub owner (“They’re men, they’ve got families,” he says, when she wonders why the guys in her backup band are being paid more than she is); and haunted by her own worries that she is being a terrible mum to daughter Traci.

Sexual harassment. Income inequality. Working-mother guilt. Greetings from 1966, which looks enough like 2020 to make a Helen Reddy biopic seem like essential viewing. And if “I Am Woman” was as pithy and rousing as the smash-hit song it is named after, it might have been.

Instead, “I Am Woman” — now available on video-on-demand services — is closer in spirit to “Delta Dawn,” “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady” and other tracks from Reddy’s hit-filled catalog. The nearly two-hour film is a too-tasteful tale of a woman ill-served by the men in her life. It is not a life-changing piece of entertainment, but like her easy-listening take on pop psychodramas like “Angie Baby” and “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress),” the film is often redeemed by the warmth and stealth feminism of the singer behind the songs.

When director Unjoo Moon and screenwriter Emma Jensen introduce us to Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, in a compelling star turn), she is a single mom who has flown from Australia to New York with Traci to redeem the recording contract she won in a television talent contest. It turns out the prize was not a recording contract, but the chance to audition for a recording contract. And since the record company brass had already seen her on the TV show, and seeing as how no one was interested in female singers anyway, there was really no need to audition, either.

Don’t let the revolving door of outrage hit you on the way out, honey.

Reddy’s first real glimmer of hope comes courtesy of up-and-coming rock critic and fellow Aussie transplant Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald of “Patti Cake$” and “Dumplin’”), whose interest in protest music and the budding women’s liberation movement helps set the stage for Reddy’s feminist awakening. Roxon’s determination to write the first Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll (which the real-life Roxon really did) and take on the rock ‘n’ roll boys club (which Roxon also did) makes Reddy want to kick some serious chauvinism butt. Which she will eventually do.

The Reddy and Roxon friendship also allows “I Am Woman” to pass the Bechdel test, in which a film, book or TV show must feature at least two female characters who (a) talk to each other about (b) something besides a man. The chemistry between Cobham-Hervey and Macdonald doesn’t have the lived-in intimacy of true soulmates, but in the scenes when they bond over life, work and the future of the Equal Rights Amendment, “I Am Woman” becomes that welcome Hollywood rarity — a film that recognizes and appreciates the seismic power of female friendships.

Also, we’re going to need all of the strong-woman reinforcements we can get, because here comes Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, “X-Men,” “American Horror Story”), the force of Bronx-grown, cocaine-fueled nature who will become Reddy’s husband, manager and one-man torture device. They meet at Reddy’s birthday party, when she is still singing in dive-y nightclubs and he is working at the William Morris talent agency. They flirt over chess games (she wins the first one, he studies up and wins the second), and after he hears her sing, he makes a full-throated pitch for being her manager.

“You be the show; I’ll be the business,” he says, before whisking her off to Los Angeles, where he will spend most of his time working with other clients (including Tiny Tim) and snorting coke, and she will spend most of her time wondering when he is going to show up for her.

In Jensen’s script, Roxon’s passionate newspaper column on the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality March in New York, combined with Reddy’s frustration about the plight of women and the state of her own stalled career, inspired her to write “I Am Woman,” whose fist-pumping chorus (I am strong/I am invincible) became the rallying cry for many marches, rallies and dorm-room catharsis sessions.

In truth, Reddy co-wrote the song with Australian musician Ray Burton (who is not mentioned in the film), but when “I Am Woman” won a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance, it was Reddy who accepted with a for-the-ages speech that included a shout-out to God, “because She makes everything possible.”

As Wald, the charismatic Peters goes from zero to 600 with the flick of a tiny spoon, and he stays in exhausting overdrive for the whole film. The film does gives Wald credit for badgering a reluctant record executive into giving Reddy the chance to record the version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”) that launched her recording career. He hustles radio stations and schmoozes industry bigwigs to help get Reddy the career he promised her.

But after that, it’s all temper tantrums and bug-eyed rants, as “I Am Woman” spends way too much time on Wald’s theatrics and Reddy’s suffering and not nearly enough time on what she was thinking and feeling during the whirlwind five years that she spent cranking out hits, hosting TV shows and being the toast of multiple continents. And in a frustrating missed opportunity, it does not explore why she put up with Wald’s abusive behavior for as long as she did. (The couple divorced in 1983. Wald got sober three years later and stayed that way.)

It isn’t until the final few scenes, when “I Am Woman” skips ahead to Reddy coming out of retirement to perform a triumphant version of her signature song at the 1989 “Mobilize for Women’s Rights” abortion rights march in Washington, that we get an inkling of the pride and pressure that comes with giving a voice to a movement. There is also a heartfelt tribute to the late Roxon that brings that supportive spirit back when we need it most.

Cobham-Hervey didn’t do her own singing in the film, but her grounded, galvanizing performance of “I Am Woman” and other Reddy showstoppers are reason enough to give this film two hours of your time. It isn’t the nuanced portrait the woman or the era deserve, but every war needs a battle cry, and since we’re still in the trenches, now is as good a time as any to sing along.

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(Karla Peterson is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

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