Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Am Woman, or: You Were Nicer Before All the Coke

“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?

The Film:

I Am Woman

The Premise:

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.

The Ramble:

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?

The Rating:

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.

Would my blog wife stand by this one or throw it all away for a line of coke? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Dolemite Is My Name, or: Lady in Reed

Not going to lie, I intended to keep the sad vibes going this week with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, but our pick for the week by no means feels like sloppy seconds. Rather than a serious drama of revenge in the Tasmanian wilderness, this week takes us on a decidedly more fun journey to 1970s Los Angeles.

The Film:

Dolemite Is My Name

The Premise:

This biopic follows comedian and musician Rudy Ray Moore as he struggles to make and release the 1970s Blaxploitation film Dolemite.

The Ramble:

As an aspiring musician and comedian in the 1970s, Rudy Ray Moore has seen better days. His music has gone out of fashion in favor of stars like James Brown, and his one-man-show act isn’t what any of the comedy clubs are looking for. Now working in a record store by day and as an MC by night, Rudy’s career seems truly at a dead end.

However, inspired by the ramblings of a homeless man at the store, Rudy develops a comedy character by the name of Dolemite. Borrowing money from his aunt, Rudy creates a raunchy comedy record deemed too filthy for radio. The record speaks for itself as Rudy makes his rounds across the comedy clubs in L.A. and the South.

an African-American man wearing a yellowish-green suit stands onstage with a band

While performing comedy, Rudy finds a partner for a double act in the form of Lady Reed, a woman preparing to fistfight with a man at the club. Though Lady Reed has never considered herself a comedian, she has the commanding presence and raunchy sense of humor to make her the perfect partner for Rudy.

a man in a 1970s-style suit holds a microphone, facing a woman with a microphone in a tight, shiny purple outfit

It can never be said that Rudy’s dreams are too small; as soon as he’s achieved success in clubs, Rudy is ready to take his character Dolemite to the big screen. With his enthusiasm and charm, Rudy easily recruits a playwright, director, crew, and cast. Never mind that the cinematographers are UCLA film students, many of the actors are strippers with no film experience, and the electricity for their improvised studio fades in and out.

An over-the-top Blaxploitation film, Dolemite promises to deliver an all-girl kung-fu army, a gritty look into the nightclub scene, and a dramatic exorcism, all while addressing themes of urban inequity and drug abuse. Too bad director D’Urville Martin (of Rosemary’s Baby fame) dreams of creating a serious, artistic film rather than the campy mess Rudy envisions. It becomes clear very quickly that Rudy will take nothing seriously, from the kung-fu moves to the silly sex scene.

a man faces two people at a booth in a nightclub:  a woman with a teased afro and a man in a retro corduroy hat and outfit

Eventually, Martin yields to the inevitable and accepts the film will never be as he envisioned it. With filming wrapped, the movie is all set for theatrical release, right? Wrong. After all of his work on the film, Rudy is having trouble drumming up any distributor interest whatsoever; he eventually gives up on the film ever seeing the light of day.

Will Dolemite ever complete its journey to the big screen? (Spoiler/historical fact: yes.)

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The cast is killer and it’s worth watching the film for the performances alone: Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Wesley Snipes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eddie Murphy at the top of his game–still only a fraction of the cast making this film such a fun ride. The dynamic between Murphy and Snipes especially stands out, and I absolutely love Randolph here too.

It doesn’t hurt that the script offers an interesting peek into a little-known true story (or at least not known to me). Like Rudy, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but respects and pays tribute to its subject. Perhaps Dolemite was never going to win any Oscars, but it was a real passion project for Rudy and a reflection of a time and place in recent(ish) history. It’s still quite a feat today to find a film with a primarily black cast and creators.

Rounding out the experience are the spot-on ’70s vibes captured here. The attention to period detail (is it odd to you too that this is considered a period piece?) is incredible in terms of the appearance of characters and scenery, as well as the slang and soundtrack we hear. I truly enjoyed (and learned a lot from) this film!

Would my multi-talented blog wife give this one the green light or send it back to the 1970s, white tuxedo and all? Find out in her review here!

four members of a band in stage costumes lean together in private conversation
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Dirt(bag Men of ’80s Rock)

We often escape from reality on the Blog Collab with terrible horror, bad sci-fi, and cheesy rom-coms. Not so this month, which brings us biopics and true stories grounded wholly in reality. Well…as real as the life of a rock star can be.

The Film:

The Dirt

The Premise:

The rise and fall (and rise?) of Mötley Crüe is recounted as the rock band contends with drug use, banging each other’s girlfriends, and the most rock ‘n roll problem of all: artistic differences.

The Ramble:

Our narrator sets the tone accurately here by claiming the ’80s are the worst decade of all time: stirring up shallow outrage, using glib humor rather irritatingly, and managing to come off with a smug superiority. Oh, you wanted a glowing review reaffirming that rock lives forever? Sorry to break it to you, but nostalgia’s dead.

a man in a government office holds his ID card as it burns

Lucky for us, we’re going to get insightful narration from all 4 major members of the band. Nikki Sixx (aka Lord Byron from the biopic Mary Shelley–this actor definitely has a type), founder of the band, grows up constantly fighting with a mother who blames him for driving his father away. At a fairly young age, Nikki decides he’s had enough of this situation and slices his arm open in rage, making accusations against his mother to guarantee he’ll be taken into foster care.

Tommy Lee, in contrast, has supportive parents who just sort of shrug when he raids his sister’s wardrobe. A mega fan of rock music, Tommy meets Nikki after a show that erupts in a massive fight. With his trusty drumsticks at the ready, Tommy convinces Nikki to make him the drummer in a new band just getting started.

a young man wearing colorful clothes reads in front of a wall of late 1970s posters

Enter Mick Mars, advertising himself in the papers as a rude, aggressive guitarist. A few years older than his band mates and suffering from a degenerative bone disorder, Mick takes no shit from the kiddos in the band.

As the band is still missing a lead singer, Tommy suggests his old high school buddy Vince Neil. Nikki and Mick aren’t particularly thrilled with his vibe, but since our dude is charismatic AF, they decide to give him a chance.

three young men in punk clothing look into the distance among people at an outdoor party

After throwing around a few truly terrible band names, the group quickly decides on the name Mötley Crüe. In the spirit of rock ‘n roll, a massive fight between the band and audience erupts at their first gig. However, their unrestrained music and attitude gains them a loyal following, and it’s not long before they are signed with a record label and have their own manager.

Their career gets an additional boost when the band goes on tour with Ozzy, who I learned was once blonde and did things like lick his own piss off the ground (the blonde thing surprised me more, TBH).

Am I forgetting something? Oh, right–the massive amount of partying, drugs, and sleeping around that happens throughout. Everyone seems to be sleeping with everyone else’s girlfriend, but the band is typically too fucked up to give a shit.

a man in all-black looks out confrontationally while the members of a metal band look on

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the band’s carefree days are numbered. When Vince causes an accident while driving under the influence, passenger and fellow rocker Razzle dies, while the passengers of the other car are seriously injured. After serving just 19 days in prison(!????!?!?!?), Vince is released on the condition he stay sober. When everyone around you is shooting up heroin and chugging hard liquor, this is a rather challenging task.

Meanwhile, Tommy is marrying actress Heather Locklear. Nikki, serving as best man, arrives at the wedding high out of his mind. He later overdoses and is reported dead. After immediately shooting up a bunch of heroin (again), Nikki realizes he needs to get sober. However, sober Nikki = perfectionist asshole Nikki, and a falling out means Vince is leaving the band.

Soon after, Vince is hit with the devastating news that his young daughter has cancer. The band is dropped by the label, seeming to end the Crüe’s run. Can anything get the band back together?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Points earned for over-the-top ’80s rock fashions; points detracted for toxic masculinity.

As a viewer, I was frequently confused about the purpose of this film. It seems to approach the culture of ’80s rock excess somewhat wryly, yet there are so many goddamn scenes of sex, drug abuse, and fights that it also buys into the lifestyle. There are only so many times you can flash tits onscreen and claim it’s part of the ambiance. And there’s a scene where Vince basically uses The Secret to get a blowjob, which just makes him look like an absolute douche.

I have admittedly never coveted the rock star lifestyle, but I would hope with a music biopic I would learn something about the band that’s interesting or informs my understanding of the music. Wow–Mötley Crüe really leaned into their rock star image Color me surprised. While I did find the story of Vince’s daughter upsetting, overall this film feels like a very surface-level examination of the band rather than offering much to reflect on.

There’s also so much unnecessary narration and breaking of the 4th wall that the film frequently feels like an unholy union of Scrubs and The Office. We get it: talking directly to the camera means you’re aware of the absurdity of your own experiences. So impressive.

All of this being said, our 4 leads are great. Their distinct personalities come across even when the characters all have the same haircut. And the charisma, the sense of fun, and the dedication to rock are very much there in the approach to the roles. I just have very little patience for watching so many men run around as giant man babies for most (if not all) of their lives.

Would my blog wife tie the knot without a prenup or fire this one before it can quit? Read her review here to find out!