Shot in the singer’s native Australia but set in the US, the film features a winning performance from Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy, with Evan Peters as her bull-in-a-china-shop husband/manager Jeff Wald. Chelsea Cullen, meanwhile, sings new versions of Reddy’s hits, and just to keep things in the family, there’s a new tune sung by Reddy’s granddaughter, Lily Donat.
For those who don’t know much more about Reddy than the lyrics to “I Am Woman,” and perhaps “Delta Dawn” and “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady,” her story is actually pretty inspiring, at least in the early stages. Arriving in New York as a single mom in 1966, she crooned in lounges and scrounged to get by, striking up a friendship with music journalist Lilian Roxon (“Patti Cake$’s” Danielle Macdonald) before meeting Wald, who promised “I’ll make you a star” and pushed for their move to L.A.
Dismissed by record executives, Reddy’s soothing voice belies a steely determination, as she wonders if the guys in charge ever “ask women what they want to listen to.” When stardom finally comes, big money just brings new problems, including Wald’s cocaine habit and strained relationships thanks to mom’s work schedule, including a stretch in Las Vegas.
Directed by Unjoo Moon, it’s all pretty familiar stuff on the “A Star is Born” scale; still, Reddy’s drive and ability to overcome the naysayers does convey a feminist message, one made overt as the movie (written by Emma Jensen) charts the frustrating path of the Equal Rights Amendment that paralleled its subject’s career.
There is a sort of ’70s-TV-movie look to the film — owing to what’s clearly a modest budget — including awkward shots of appreciative, rocking-out crowds. Yet that kind of works in concert with the material, including the bad haircuts on record execs and their thinly veiled hidden condescension toward what was once written off as “elevator music,” while one frets that the title song “sounds angry.”
“I Am Woman” closes with the inevitable update, reminding viewers that Reddy is still very much with us, offering a chance to celebrate what she accomplished. For those who remember the songs, it’s a nostalgic excuse to sing in the sunshine. And if you’re too young to have heard them back when they charted, think of it as a gentle reminder to go call your mom.
“I Am Woman” premieres in theaters and on digital platforms on Sept. 11.