“Watch a series of uplifting, musically-oriented films to start the new year on a positive note,” we said (without intending to pun). “That will surely make us feel better about an already worrying year.” How little we know ourselves.
Conclusively, very few of our picks this month have actually made us feel better about the world we live in. We’re dark souls here, what can I say? Can one of our final films of January buck the trend and lift our spirits with a true story of success?
I Am Woman
The story of Helen Reddy, singer/songwriter of “I Am Woman” fame, chronicles her challenges breaking into the music industry as a divorced single mother facing sexist and dismissive execs.
In 1960s, a young Helen Reddy arrives in NYC from Australia. Jazzed about a promised recording contract after winning a contest, she’s brought her daughter Traci along for an opportunity that could launch her singing career.
Naturally, the studio has its bases covered in legal terms so that, while Helen did win the contest, in no way is she guaranteed any sort of contract or time in front of a mic. What’s more, she must suffer through an endless number of questions about how she managed to make such a long journey by plane all on her lonesome, with nary a single man to help her lift heavy suitcases or prevent her from getting lost with his impeccable sense of direction.
Frustrated and disappointed, Helen must nevertheless make money ASAP to support herself and her daughter. The sole bright spot in all this is making the acquaintance of journalist Lillian Roxon, who becomes her bff and primary source of encouragement. Matching Helen’s love of music, Lillian’s goal is to create an extensive encyclopedia of rock ‘n roll.
It’s not long before Helen starts to meet new friends because of the well-connected Lillian. During a party in honor of Helen’s birthday, she fatefully meets manager Jeff Wald. After dating for a short time, Jeff asks Helen for permission to be her manager. Since Los Angeles is the place to be, that’s where the couple will move, along with Traci. Sadly, this will mean leaving behind bestie Lillian, a person who has always believed in Helen.
However, the mere act of being in LA doesn’t yield the insta-success the couple anticipates. Jeff finally lands a small-time management job, but Helen has absolutely no gigs whatsoever. Jeff’s understanding that unemployed Helen’s role is to clean the house and make sure there’s always a full pint of milk in the fridge causes tension and would very likely have resulted in a scene where Jeff is floating in a pool of milk Sunset Boulevard-style if I had scripted this film.
Meanwhile, Lillian is living her best life, covering marches commemorating the suffrage movement, Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for President, and the push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Time is ticking on the bill, which must pass in 38 states by 1979 to be adopted. For some incomprehensible reason, this gives the film an excuse to namedrop Phyllis Schlafly 8,000 times–and I have yet to stream Mrs. America and witness what is undoubtedly another brilliant turn from Cate Blanchett because my brain shortcircuits with rage any time I have to think about that woman.
Finally fed up with playing the role of housewife, Helen demands Jeff put pressure on studio exec Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock (Chris Parnell). After Jeff ties up the phone line for hours on Helen’s insistence, Dr. Spaceman finally agrees to let her record a single. Though initially nervous, Helen records a cover of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar that makes the charts. On a side note, it’s truly bizarre to think that, at the time, Jesus Christ Superstar was a trendy new musical people clamored to see. I suppose in 2070 or thereabouts, people will probably feel the same way about Hamilton, puzzling over how it ever seemed fresh or original enough to pay thousands of dollars for a ticket. Except for, reliably, worryingly intense theatre fans, who will enjoy working obscure references to it into everyday conversation.
At the same time, Traci is growing up and resenting taking kung fu classes instead of ballet. Concerned for her daughter, Helen despairingly realizes that all songs being released focus on how dreadful it is to be a woman, and/or how the love and approval of a man can turn around the most wretched female existence. Helen is inspired to write her famed feminist ballad, “I Am Woman,” which is instantly dismissed as “angry” and “man-hating.”
However, Jeff believes in the song and is convinced Helen can win over women listeners, who will call in and request the track on the radio. The strategy works, and Helen becomes a sensation. Leaping to stardom, Helen has a number one hit, gets her own show, and wins a Grammy. With her newfound success, Helen and Jeff have a baby and buy a swanky house. Cautious with money, Helen pays with everything using cash. Simultaneously, Jeff has picked up a cocaine habit, so you know things are never going to go wrong on that front.
As Helen rides the waves of fame, she forgets her old friends, refusing to return Lillian’s calls. It doesn’t help that, after a scathing review of Linda McCartney’s show, Jeff warns Helen that Lillian will do anything for a story. Yep, I’m sure your husband, out of his mind on coke, is full of sound advice. Shortly after a major fight with Lillian, Helen receives terrible news that leaves her wracked with guilt.
Like any episode of Behind the Music worth its salt, Helen’s star rises as her home life falls apart. Despite their partnership, Jeff feels emasculated by the perception that Helen is the breadwinner of the family. During coke-fueled benders, he spends more and more money and fights with his wife a lot. Meanwhile, Helen resents the lack of creative freedom the studio will grant and regrets being unable to spend more time with her children.
How much can Helen endure before her marriage fails…and she becomes fed up with the music industry altogether?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
The oft-repeated refrain of the Blog Collab has become “Why make a 2-hour film when you have 90 minutes’ worth of plot (or less)?” And it applies here. This film did not need to be 2 hours. However, largely because I enjoyed the dynamic between Helen and Lillian so much, I’m willing to be fairly generous with this review. Btw, Lillian is played wonderfully by the extremely underrated Danielle Macdonald. The friendship between these characters is instantly believable, and the film setting up their relationship as one of the most profound and powerful of Helen’s life is a choice I support.
Still, once Helen and Jeff head off to LA, their marriage becomes a major focus of the story. And it’s kind of boring, honestly? The tale of Helen’s rise to fame feels the same as so many other stars of the ’60s and ’70s: a series of failures finally yields a lucky break, but sudden fame is so overwhelming that someone develops a coke habit and close relationships fall apart. Even though it pisses me off when biopics tell a story with a sense of inevitability that this extraordinary human was destined for greatness, it’s what I have come to expect from films based on a music star’s life. The way Helen Reddy’s story is told here, she’s more or less a stubborn person who really enjoyed singing…and I fail to believe that’s all there is to her.
That leads me to another frustration with the film: what is the point? Despite the marketing for this film, there’s minimal exploration of the feminist themes in Reddy’s now iconic anthem. I think that both Helen and Jeff were still living when this film was made, so it’s possible the filmmakers were playing it safe or needed approval to tell the story. Neither comes off looking thoroughly evil despite quite a lot of macho posturing from Jeff. The story recognizes he’s an addict, which I both appreciate and find frustrating (though, as is often the case, he’s a much nicer person before constantly snorting coke). When you watch a music biopic, you go in just wanting to hate the sleazy manager. It never feels that Helen is fighting against the odds, whether because of a difficult marriage, industry sexism, or personal struggles–and this is the only thing I want from a biopic! I crave drama.