‘I Am Woman,’ Helen Reddy and the Insistent Question ☆☆☆

Women might, as Mao said, hold up half the sky, but women are not half of the arbiters of taste. They are not half of the music, art, theater, book and movie critics in the US and, I dare say, anywhere. If they were, would we view all of these subjective subjects differently? That is the insistent question that the Helen Reddy biopic, “I Am Woman” asks.

Director Unjoon Moon’s “I Am Woman” isn’t gritty. It doesn’t look too much beneath the surface. Emma Jensen’s screenplay looks at Reddy in the context of what she meant to the US women’s movement and, to a large extent, the world of women. The film begins in 1966 with Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) arriving in New York City with $230, a suitcase and her young daughter. She believes she has a record contract, the prize for winning a contest in her native Australia. Instead, she learned, she only won an audition and the record executives had already decided to pass on her. A determined Reddy stays, working illegally and making friends with fellow Aussie, rock and roll writer Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald). Reddy soon meets and marries (making her a legal resident) Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). He moves her to Los Angeles where Wald gets a job at Capitol Records and a cocaine habit. In the film, Reddy pushes her husband to push her more and that gets her a single with a B-side that charts (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” by Andrew Lloyd Weber for “Jesus Christ Superstar”).  A conversation with Roxon leads to the titular song. Then we have the dissolution of a marriage between Reddy and Wald, but the triumph of a song that made Reddy an icon. 

Cobham-Hervey and Peters have chemistry, but Cobham-Hervey is slight a bird-like compared to the sturdy, square-jawed Reddy. More problematic is Reddy’s relationship with one other man: Ray Burton.  The song that became the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, “I Am Woman,” had lyrics written by Reddy, but the melody was written by a man. We don’t really get to see any collaboration with the writer, Ray Burton, because he’s been written out of this biopic. He told an Australian publication he was “insulted.”

If you’re not aware of the music scene of the time, you might be misled by this film. When you think of the late 1960s and early 1970s who do you think of? The Beatles and the Rolling Stones? Jimmy Hendrix? Mick Jagger and Keith Richards “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was released in 1965 and reached the top spot on the billboards in Australia, the US and the UK. Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) released “Purple Haze” in 1967; the single peaked at 3 in the UK and 65 in the US. 

Then think of the clean-cut Reddy, a single mother and then a wife of a big-time agent, making it without sex, drugs or a hell-on-wheels rocking mama image. Reddy didn’t make waves by her contemporaries included Janis Joplin (1943-1970) whose “Mercedes Benz” was release the year Joplin died and Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee was released posthumously in 1971.  

From the film, you might think it was all boy bands in 1966, when Reddy first came to New York. Yet the songs that here topping the charts were:

  • The Sounds of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • We Can Work It Out (The Beatles)
  • My Love (Petula Clark)
  • These Boots are Made for Walkin’ (Nancy Sinatra)
  • Ballad of the Green Berets (Barry Sadler)
  • (You’re My) Soul and Inspiration (The Righteous Brothers)
  • Monday, Monday (The Mamas & the Papas)
  • When a Man Loves a Woman (Percy Sledge)
  • Paint it Black (The Rolling Stones)
  • Paperback Writer (The Beatles)
  • Strangers in the Night (Frank Sinatra)
  • Wild Thing (The Troggs)
  • Summer in the City (The Lovin’ Spoonful)
  • Sunshine Superman (Donovan)
  • You Can’t Hurry Love (The Supremes)
  • Cherish (The Association)
  • Reach Out I’ll Be There (Four Tops)
  • Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees)
  • Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys)
  • I’m a Believer (The Monkees)

During Helen Reddy’s heyday there were certainly women singers charting with strong vocals such as Petula Clark. By the time “I Am Woman” hit the charts, the Downey- raised Karen (1950-1983) and Richard Carpenter had already had hit singles “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” in 1969.  

Los Angeles definitely might have been the place to be. The Carpenters were born in New Haven, CT, but raised in Los Angeles County (Downey).  They both attended Long Beach State. The Beach Boys, The Monkees and The Association were part of the Southern California Sound. The Beach Boys were born and raised in Hawthorne, California, just less than half an hour on 405 from Long Beach or on the 105 to Downey. (The actual Wilson house was demolished for the construction of the 105) The Association’s Terry Kirkman was born and raised in Kansas, but came to California to study music were he met Jules Alexander and eventually formed The Association. Kirkman wrote Sunshine Pop classic “Cherish.” 

While the Beach Boys had their problems with addiction, the Carpenters and Reddy did not. Alice Cooper called Reddy the Queen of Housewife Rock.  Some people criticized the Carpenters for their squeaky clean image. Helen Reddy was not so out of place in the California.

The year before  “I Am Woman” came out, also in Billboard magazine’s Top 100 were Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”/”I Feel the Earth Move,” The Carpenters’ “Superstar” and “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” Cher’s “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” and Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.”   In 1972, when “I Am Woman” went number one on Billboard, Robert Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Melanie’s “Brand New Key” also were number one.

While in the film, “I Am Woman,” Reddy asks, “Did it every occur to you men to ask women what they wanted to listen to?” and even now that seems like a reasonable question that needs to be expanded to all arts, it is also important to remember that women worked together with men. In that respect, it would have been nice to see the collaboration of Ray Burton and Helen Reddy to celebrate what the women and men can do when the work together. 

The film, “I Am Woman,” is a good introduction to Helen Reddy and the percolating concerns of the women’s movement of the time as well as being a great family sing-along opportunity. 

 

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