Just in case you don’t get the message, please leave this woman alone. Music critic Lester Bangs called “Leave Me Alone” a “masterpiece” in his very funny review of Long Hard Climb (“I don’t blame Helen and the rest of womankind for being mad. All men but me are puds.”) Reddy’s heyday was the 1970s. She was about as successful in her career as it is possible to be. Three of her songs reached #1. She had multiple hits in both the Top 10 and the Top 40. Her fame did not travel into the 1980s, when feminism re-introduced itself, only this time wearing a cone-shaped bra and a “Boy Toy” belt. No shade on Madonna, but where could Reddy fit in in the 1980s? Short answer: she didn’t. “I Am Woman,” the new Reddy biopic, directed by Unjoo Moon, and written by Emma Jensen, is an attempt to tell Reddy’s story, but despite a strong central performance by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, the film falls into the typical biopic trap, showing far more interest in Reddy’s marriage problems than in the reason why we all care in the first place: Reddy’s music, Reddy’s voice.
“I Am Woman” starts with Reddy’s arrival in New York City, fresh off of winning a singing contest in Australia. After a disheartening meeting with an executive at Mercury who calls her “sweetheart,” she is back at square one. Living with her daughter in a furnished apartment, Reddy sings in nightclubs and tries to get her career off the ground. She makes an important friend in music journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who introduces her to Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), a hungry young agent. Wald decides to manage Reddy’s career. They get married, and almost immediately Jeff stops promoting her and starts complaining about how messy the house is. Eventually, through sheer force of will power, she comes out with an album, and “I Am Woman” puts her over the edge and into the zeitgeist. It was the right song for the right moment.
Reddy, not a flashy performer, wasn’t easily market-able. It’s not apparent how huge her voice is until she lets loose, and then you wonder where she was hiding all that power. It’s a disappointment that Reddy’s actual voice wasn’t used for “I Am Woman,” but Australian pop singer Chelsea Cullen does an amazing job of approximating Reddy’s tone and phrasing.
There are huge time leaps in “I Am Woman,” the most baffling being the jump from 1974 to 1983. We see her become a star and then we flash forward almost 10 years, to where she’s playing Vegas and her marriage is on the rocks. “I Am Woman” skips over Reddy’s success years! Another time-leap brings us another decade forward, where she reminds her daughter she is “retired.” But why? When did she make that decision? We can put the pieces together, but “I Am Woman” takes too much for granted. How you can tell Reddy’s story and skip 1975 to 1983? That makes no sense.