Sunday, 27 December 2020

I Am Woman (2020) - Movie Review

Well, beyond anything else about I have to say about this movie, I certainly learned something from it: The singer of one of the most famous female empowerment anthems was an Aussie. And just from that framing, the film immediately got my attention, with Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s Helen arriving in New York, suitcase in one hand and her daughter’s hand in the other, ready to make her mark on the musical landscape. Something about her alongside journalist Lilian Roxon (Dumplin’s Danielle Macdonald, another woman I only just learned was from my neck of the woods), two women Against The World and carving their own places in music history, is quite gratifying in a hometown-pride kind of way.

It definitely helps that Cobham-Hervey sells every single moment she’s on-screen. While her singing voice being dubbed is kinda disappointing (although admittedly, Chelsea Cullen does deliver on the vocals), her stage presence is more than enough to excuse all sins. Her history in theatre certainly pays off here, with all the little movements and gestures granting her control of the scene at every turn, adding some visual charisma to the proceedings. Her more dramatic moments are solid as well, whether it’s opposite Macdonald, or Evan Peters as her husband, or even Jordan Raskopoulos as her house maid. Honestly, more than anything else, seeing Jordan in a movie like this is its own brand of awesome for me, having followed her comedy career for so long.

As for the thematic framing, hitching Reddy’s biggest hit to the surrounding women’s lib movement definitely makes sense, and right from the start where she walks past a brazenly condescending advertisement for ketchup bottles, it makes its feminist leanings known. And overall, I’d say it did a good job at getting that message across. A key moment with this in mind is when she and Peters’ Jeff Wald showcase I Am Woman for some record execs, and they write it off as being too “angry”. Maybe it’s just my modern-day, “WAP is a No. 1 hit” bias kicking in, but the mere idea of something so quintessentially soft-rock as that song being considered “angry” is kind of hilarious to me.

Then again, that remains the company line for this type of media to this day. Women standing up for themselves, celebrating their existence in itself and not just as an extension of someone else, is far more likely to be branded as “angry” or “brazen” or even “man-hating”, rather than empowering. It’s because of this that even songs like Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves, one of the greatest efforts within this bracket, had to include that line about how a woman still loves a man: If it’s not patting men on the back for being there, it’s automatically an attack on who they are. As antithetical as the term may be in getting the people it most applies to to understand what it means, this is why the phrase “male fragility” exists.

With that in mind, the way it ties cultural and political revolution together is rather satisfying, but I hesitate to view the rest of the film in the same light. For as forthright as it is in showing a woman taking charge of her life, balancing home life and work life as strawmen still insist is impossible, and surviving her tumultuous marriage, the narrative at large is frustratingly basic. It hits all the familiar notes for a music biopic, and the way it adheres to the history (save for acknowledging Ray Burton’s co-writing credit, which for an epilogue that emphasises the lyrics of the song is a bit suss) makes the mistake of hitting the relevant milestones, but without maintaining a narrative context so it all fits. Yeah, it’s based on actual events, but that’s the difference between a documentary and a biopic: Fiction has a touch more freedom to add texture to the story and create an arc where one might not have been obvious before. Here, while the finale still works, I’m not so sure if every moment leading up to it was entirely necessary.

When all is said and done, though, I may have reservations about the pacing and the narrative focus, but Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s performance keeps eyeballs glued to the screen regardless. As a bit of local pride made cinematic flesh, it certainly gave me better context for a song I only previously heard used as bit gags in sitcoms (Homer Simpson in drag, not to mention a few disparaging mentions on Married With Children), but it’s a little too plain as a biopic to recommend too strongly. I still say it’s worth it just for Cobham-Harvey, Macdonald, and even Raskopoulos, but don’t set your expectations too high about the rest of it.

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