“I Am Woman,” a pleasant, yet disappointingly trite biopic of the singer Helen Reddy, has a flatness that’s difficult to ascribe to any one element. As Reddy, Tilda Cobham-Hervey has warmth and gumption; the 1960s-80s production design is impeccable; and the cinematography, by the celebrated Dion Beebe (the partner of the director, Unjoo Moon), is richly textured.
Yet there’s a rote quality to Emma Jensen’s ultraconventional script, a ticking-off of obstacles and triumphs that feels shallow and rushed. In short order, we see Reddy arrive from Australia in 1966 with her small daughter, nab a New York City apartment, suffer rejection from record companies and befriend the noted music journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald).
The introduction of the ambitious young talent agent, Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), immediately muddies the movie’s focus. Communicating almost entirely in platitudes, he becomes Reddy’s husband (“You make me want to be better”) and manager (“I’ll make you a star”). A move to Los Angeles, where the 1972 single of the title will propel Reddy’s rise and be adopted as an unofficial theme song of the women’s movement, only renders Reddy’s character more amorphous. In public, she’s a fearless warrior against the punitive sexism of the time; in private, she meekly tolerates her husband’s verbal abuse and uncontrolled cocaine habit.
Declining to address this contradiction, Moon also ignores the unusual childhood and surprising beliefs described in Reddy’s 2006 memoir, never mind her artistic process. (Why did she stop writing and record only covers?) Without these insights, what remains is less the impression of a feminist musician than of an absent mother, neglectful friend and unassertive wife. And that’s nothing to roar about.