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I Am Woman: Biopic’s significance to a generation of women

You probably know her song, “I Am Woman”, both a feminist anthem and cringe-ly used in a series of 1990s ads for incontinence pads.You might have known she was Australian but, if you were born after a certain era, that’s probably where it ends.A new biopic, I Am Woman, starring an excellent and embodied Tilda…

You probably know her song, “I Am Woman”, both a feminist anthem and cringe-ly used in a series of 1990s ads for incontinence pads.

You might have known she was Australian but, if you were born after a certain era, that’s probably where it ends.

A new biopic, I Am Woman, starring an excellent and embodied Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy delves into the successful singer-songwriter’s life and career, from the moment, aged 24, she lands in New York City in 1966 with a young daughter and few hundred bucks until her seminal performance at a women’s rally in 1989.

Befriending music writer and fellow expat Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), Reddy was introduced to two things that would define her career: the women’s movement and Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), her future husband and manager.

Not that Reddy was a stranger to sexism, chauvinism and patronising men – no woman in that era (or any era) was.

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Reddy, Wald and Reddy’s daughter Traci move to LA to further his career while she’s expected to maintain their home. It’s only when Reddy pushes Wald to prioritise her ambitions does she finally get her foot into a recording studio.

She won a Grammy, had three number one hits in the US, a dozen more top 40 songs and even her own TV show.

Reddy’s legacy will always be tied to the emotional significance of her song to the women’s movement over the decades, but it was about time her story was told.

Director Unjoo Moon (documentary The Zen of Bennett) worked closely with Reddy on the film after sitting next to her at a G’Day LA dinner some years ago. I Am Woman is a labour of love to an icon, rather than a warts-and-all expose – if there are any warts they belong to Wald.

The heady fame industry combined with cocaine on tap makes for a volatile combination, and it was, by the film’s account, an unhappy marriage for the most part.

Wald, who also managed Sylvester Stallone, Deep Purple and James Brolin, has been public and honest about his prolonged drug use and the destruction wrought by it, including when he was married to Reddy.

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Through the combustible dynamics between Reddy and Wald, I Am Woman seeks to connect what Reddy meant to the women fighting for equal rights on the streets and in legislatures, with the personal challenges in her marriage, where she was the one bringing in the money but still not calling the shots.

But it’s only in the final scene, in Reddy’s performance at the 1989 reproductive rights rally on the National Mall in Washington DC after years away from the top does I Am Woman really hit home what the lyrics in her song – “I am wise, but it’s wisdom born of pain” – signify in the feminist struggle.

The wider movement was always on the periphery of I Am Woman – flashes of archival footage of marches, of Shirley Chisholm – but it doesn’t do enough to make it an indispensable part of Reddy’s story.

While she faced demeaning record executives and told that she couldn’t be paid as much as her male band members because “they had families” to feed, the inelegant time jumps make the film feel disjointed, and that she had it easier than she probably really did.

I Am Woman was originally to be releases in cinemas this year after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, and it’s a movie that would’ve played well in a packed theatre with women (and men) for whom Reddy was a cultural touchstone in their lives.

Without that nostalgia-fuelled, communal experience, the film may not have the same emotional resonance it was made to have. As far as the aesthetics go, it will look perfectly fine on streaming at home.

Still, for a generation of women, and for their daughters and granddaughters who may not know about Reddy’s contributions, they now get to share it. I Am Woman will mean something to them.

Rating: 3/5

I Am Woman premieres on Stan on Friday, August 28

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