I Am Woman: how Helen Reddy’s music roared through the women’s movement

As a new biopic hits Stan, the singer is described by those who know her as a woman that nobody could hold back

When Unjoo Moon visits Helen Reddy, they always gravitate towards the record player Moon bought the singer. Reddy, who’s been diagnosed with dementia, now lives in a Los Angeles nursing home for professional entertainers. Moon and Reddy play their favourite songs, as well as Reddy’s own albums. “And we sing to them,” Moon says. “Her with her still-incredible voice and me with my karaoke voice.”

Moon is the director of Stan Original biopic I Am Woman, which stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) as Reddy. It follows the Australian star from her earliest days as a club singer in New York – where she arrived in 1966 with $235, a suitcase and her daughter Traci – to first topping the Billboard charts in 1972 and performing at the 1989 women’s march in Washington.

Helen Reddy on stage in 1974
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 woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore”, which Moon remembers well as a child growing up in Australia. “Her music used to come on the radio and suburban housewives used to roll down the windows and let down their hair in the breeze, singing loudly,” she says.

Moon was introduced to Reddy at an awards dinner in Los Angeles in 2013 and the pair talked for two hours. “Helen was 72 and had just moved back to America, doing a comeback,” Moon says.

At first they discussed a documentary, but Moon realised a feature film might better bring alive the spirit of Reddy’s story.

The early 70s was a seismic time for feminism. Across the US, protesters turned up in the tens of thousands at the women’s strike for equality, sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), while others creatively disrupted the Miss World contest in London with flour bombs. Key texts such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and the magazine Ms were published.

But the music industry was in no mood for a women’s lib banger. As one record executive in the film says: “All radio stations already have a spot on the playlist for the allotted female record.”

That was also Jeff Wald’s experience when, as Reddy’s manager and husband, he called 165 top-40 stations to urge 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. Photograph: Stan

In one scene in a record company boardroom there’s a line attributed to Wald that’s couched in truth. He appeals to an executive: “Remember that march in New York and how many women showed up to that? Imagine that as record sales ... marching down the street.”

Moon, who fondly recalls a consultation lunch with the gregarious Wald that lasted a good six hours, says: “We put that line in the movie because he was a great marketer. But he did really support Helen and he still is a feminist at heart.”

Wald would agree. While enthusiastically chewing his dinner he says: “The good news is that the women who were in and out of our house – like Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem – are probably responsible for me not having any #MeToo problems.”

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

Although he doesn’t come off admirably throughout, Wald likes the film. Just as he owns his success (he managed Sylvester Stallone, Chicago, Donna Summer and Crosby, Stills and Nash, among others) he says he owns his mistakes. Those incidents depicted in the film include cocaine-fuelled outbursts, losing the marital home through money mismanagement, and berating Reddy for not fulfilling her domestic duties.

“The record executives said: ‘How can you let your wife do that women’s lib crap? It’ll end her career!’ ” He scoffs. “I don’t ‘let her’ do anything. I didn’t marry somebody that you gotta ‘let’. I’ve been attracted to strong women my whole life. Ask my third wife – she’ll 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. Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti

In fact, while Alice Cooper may have famously called Reddy “the queen of housewife rock” (Wald says he recalls Blondie’s Debbie Harry also had a T-shirt with this as a slogan), the singer did have an edge.

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

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

Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen Reddy.
A scene from I Am Woman. Director Unjoo Moon says that when she first met Helen Reddy they talked about doing a documentary before she settled on a biopic. Photograph: Stan

Perhaps most boldly, at the 1973 Grammy Awards, Reddy thanked God “because She makes everything possible”. Wald says that earned her more than 7,000 angry letters, “most of them from morons, like, Trump kind of people. 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: “The sad thing is, 45 years later the equal rights amendment still hasn’t totally been passed, nor has this current Republican Congress Senate passed the violence against women act.”

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 sniped at what they perceived to be Reddy’s desertion of the country.

“I feel like the story’s so quintessentially Australian,” says Moon. “Think of the many, many people that have left Australia with a dream to make it in the arts. Helen was really one of the first people that did it.”

• I Am Woman streams on Stan from 28 August


Jenny Valentish

The GuardianTramp

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