When “I Am Women” begins, it is uncannily familiar. Anticipation ripens as the camera shadows its star Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) while she climbs the subway stairs with her chin up, sights set on her dreams. This camerawork strikes a similar rhythm to the opening sequences of other biographical movies about musical icons — such as in “Rocket Man,” when Elton John (Taron Egerton) struts through a dimly lit hallway wearing his devil’s costume, or again in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” when Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) paces backstage to prepare for his performance at Live Aid. In this way, perhaps the opening scene of “I Am Woman” is an accurate introduction, a harbinger for a film frustratingly uninspired by its own dependency on cliches.
The surging second wave of feminism found its anthem in Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit “I Am Woman.” Her song resonated with activists striving to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, encapsulating the zeitgeist of 1970’s mainstream feminism. Directed by Unjoo Moon, the movie “I Am Woman” aspires to explore Reddy’s personal life and her professional struggles against the misogynistic music industry. In the film, Reddy, an Australian single mother, travels with her small daughter to the United States after winning a recording contract through a talent contest; however, a patronizing studio executive dashes her hope to redeem the prized deal. During this rocky journey, Reddy finds solace in her best friend, the renowned rock critic Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald).
The film honors the importance of female friendships, but this laudable effort calcifies in a rusted script. Reddy and Roxon communicate through heavy-handed exposition and platitudes worthy of a fortune cookie. It’s refreshing to see them support each other — female intimacy is a biopic rarity — but when Reddy meets music manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), the promising platonic veneers are dwarfed by a disappointing romance.
Cobham-Hervey delivers a strong central performance, only curdled by her and Peters’ sour chemistry. The two leads are discordant, acting as if they’re in completely different movies: Peters, in a rickety New York accent, portrays Wald’s angry fits with excessive cruelty, a choice sharply at odds with Cobham-Hervey’s demure earnestness. The script further strains their relationship as Wald seems to develop a cocaine addiction right under Reddy’s unclogged nose; she never acknowledges the white powder dusting her husband’s desk until they have spiraled into an argument.
Before her fame takes flight, Reddy implores Ward, as her lover and her manager, to fight for her career. Cobham-Hervey carries the scene with compelling vulnerability until a surge of melancholic strings interrupts her plea. Instead of trusting its actors, the film superimposes sentimental music, but the accompanying strings merely cheapen the scene. Perhaps in a movie about music, a frivolous score is a red flag.
The film plainly parallels Reddy’s own life to the women’s liberation movement. When Reddy’s musical career starts to soar, the film indulges in a banal but ultimately benign “good days” montage of the songstress singing her heart out on tour, a sequence intercut with what looks like stock footage of smiling white women in cars. By conflating Reddy’s growth and her most famous political conviction, “I Am Woman” simplifies its protagonist to a feminist figurehead, eroding the film’s fundamental promise of biography.
In addition to flattening its lead, “I Am Woman” bows down to the banal tradition fossilized in other films — such as “A Star is Born,” “Wayne’s World” and, once again, “Bohemian Rhapsody” — by depicting the ambitious and selfish music manager as the villain. Ward, however, doubles as Reddy’s love interest, a problematic intersection in their relationship that remains inadequately addressed in the movie.
The allure of biopics lies in the genre’s ability to honor an influential figure. Helen Reddy deserves a tribute as pioneering as the song that she penned. And yet, with the depth of a kiddie pool and the creative drive of drywall, “I Am Woman” demonstrates a stronger conviction to imitate the biopic blueprint than to investigate the life of its subject.