I Am Woman: How Helen Reddy’s Music Roared Through the Women’s Movement | Music

When Unjoo Moon visits Helen Reddy, they are still drawn to the record player Moon bought for the singer. Reddy, who was diagnosed with dementia, now lives in a Los Angeles nursing home for professional artists. Moon and Reddy play their favorite songs, as well as Reddy’s own albums. “And we sing for them,” Moon says. “Her with her ever-amazing voice and me with my karaoke voice.”

Moon is the director of the Stan Original biopic I Am Woman, which stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) as Reddy. It follows the Australian star from her debut as a club singer in New York City – where she arrived in 1966 with $ 235, a suitcase, and her daughter Traci – to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1972 and on the march. Women of 1989 in Washington.

Helen Reddy performing at the Millrun Playhouse Theater in the Round, Niles, Illinois, in 1974. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

The film takes its title from Reddy’s 1971 feminist anthem, with its immortal line “I am a woman, hear me roar / In numbers too large to ignore”, which Moon recalls vividly as a child. Australia. “Her music was on the radio and the suburban housewives rolled down the windows and let their hair fall in the breeze, singing loudly,” she says.

Moon was introduced to Reddy at an awards dinner in Los Angeles in 2013 and the couple spoke for two hours. “Helen was 72 years old and had just returned to America, making a comeback,” Moon said.

At first, they discussed a documentary, but Moon realized that a feature film might better bring the spirit of Reddy’s story to life.

The early 1970s were a seismic period for feminism. Across the United States, tens of thousands of protesters turned out for the Women’s Strike for Equality, sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), while others creatively disrupted the Miss World pageant. in London with flour bombs. Key texts such as The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and the Ms magazine have been published.

But the music industry was not in the mood for women. As one record manager puts it in the film: “All radio stations already have a place on the playlist for the allocated female record. “

It was also Jeff Wald’s experience when, as manager and husband of Reddy, he called 165 stations from the top 40 to get them to play the track.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy in Moon's biopic, I Am Woman.
Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy in Moon’s biopic, I Am Woman. Photography: Stan

In a scene in a record company boardroom, there is a line attributed to Wald that is worded in truth. He appealed to an executive: “Do you remember that march in New York and how many women showed up at it?” Imagine that record sales… parading in the street. “

Moon, who fondly remembers a consultation lunch with Gregarious Wald that lasted a good six hours, says, “We put that line in the movie because he was such a great marketer. But he really supported Helen, and he’s still a feminist at heart.

Wald would agree. While chewing his dinner enthusiastically, he says, “The good news is that the women who walked in and out of our house – like Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem – are probably responsible for the fact that I didn’t have any. #MeToo issues.

Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 27, 1981.
Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 27, 1981. Photograph: Barry King / Alamy Stock Photo

While he doesn’t fare admirably throughout, Wald does enjoy the movie. Just as he owns his success (he has directed Sylvester Stallone, Chicago, Donna Summer and Crosby, Stills and Nash, among others), he says he owns his mistakes. Incidents depicted in the film include cocaine-fueled explosions, loss of the marital home due to mismanagement of money, and berating Reddy for not fulfilling his domestic duties.

“The record directors said, ‘How can you let your wife do this female bullshit? This will end his career! ” He mocks. “I don’t ‘let’ her do anything. I didn’t marry someone you have to “leave”. I have been drawn to strong women all my life. Ask my third wife, she will tell you.

Director Unjoo Moon (right) with Tilda Cobham-Hervey on the set of I Am Woman.
Director Unjoo Moon (right) with Tilda Cobham-Hervey on the set of I Am Woman. Photography: Lisa Tomasetti

In fact, while Alice Cooper may have called Reddy “the queen of rock in the hearth” (Wald says he remembers Blondie’s Debbie Harry also had a T-shirt with that tagline), the singer had a advantage.

Cult producer Kim Fowley (The Runaways, Kiss) worked on Reddy’s LP Ear Candy in 1977, comparing it to “Sam Peckinpah directing a movie with Julie Andrews”. Wald says of one track, Summer of ’71: “It’s about a three day trip to mescaline that I did with Helen at Lake Arrowhead.”

And as writer Caroline Sullivan observed, there was a depth and an obscurity in some of the female protagonists that Reddy sings about – Angie Baby, Delta Dawn and Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) – that requires more than a superficial listening to understand.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen Reddy.
A scene from I am a woman. Director Unjoo Moon says that when she first met Helen Reddy, they talked about making a documentary before she decided on a biopic. Photography: Stan

Perhaps most daringly, at the 1973 Grammy Awards, Reddy thanked God “because she makes everything possible.” Wald says it got him over 7,000 angry letters, “most of them from morons, like people like Trump. Letters that said, “If you think God is a woman, then God and the Virgin Mary must have been lesbians.” But Helen was making a political statement, not a religious statement.

He adds: “What is sad is that 45 years later, the equal rights amendment has still not been fully passed, and the current Republican Congressional Senate has not passed either. the law on violence against women. “

Making a biopic of a living person is nerve-racking, but Reddy cried and sang while watching a preview and Wald says he thinks the film is a legacy for Reddy and the family – hopefully especially in Australia, where the press had shot what they perceived as Reddy’s desertion of the country.

“I feel like the story is so uniquely Australian,” Moon says. “Think of the many people who left Australia with dreams of being successful in the arts. Helen was truly one of the first people to do so.

I’m a Woman streaming on Stan from August 28