Helen Reddy and I am Woman
When my daughter was little, we used to say that she lived her life as though she was performing in a West End musical. Music and dance have always been as important to her as they have been to me. She learned to read from endless karaoke sessions we would organise at the weekend. Her favourite song to perform would be a duet with me of, You and Me Against the World. I had first heard the tune when I was a child and my father used to play me an album, he owned by the singer Helen Reddy. Thus, when Helen died in September 2020, we both felt a degree of sadness. So, when I discovered that a biopic of her life unsurprisingly entitled, I Am Woman had been released on Netflix, I was eager to watch. Directed by Unjoo Moon, the film stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen Reddy, Evan Peters as Reddy’s former husband and manager Jeff Wald, and Danielle Macdonald as Reddy’s friend, journalist Lillian Roxon.
Although many might recognise the voice and the songs, few are aware of Helen’s life story which appears to tie in well with the feminist theme since from the outset. Helen was striving to make her mark as a singer in an era when the music industry was male-dominated.
Born into a showbusiness family in Melbourne, Australia in 1941, Helen accompanied her parents on the Vaudeville circuit from an early age and won a competition giving her a ticket to New York and what she believed would be a contract with Mercury Records. The contract did not transpire but Reddy was determined to achieve success in the US and so she remained there trying to get work, which as a single mother to her daughter Tracey, and without a work permit, was nye on impossible.
In 1968 Reddy met Jeff Wald, who for a brief period worked as a secretary at the William Morris Agency. They married three days later in order to ensure Helen could remain in the United States and Helen continued to perform in hospitals and for charity events to support the family. A move to Los Angeles secured work for Jeff as a talent manager where as well as promoting acts such as Deep Purple and Tiny Tim – known for his cover version of the 1929 song ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips, he desperately tried to secure some interest in Helen. Wald continue to press Capital records to sign Helen and eventually succeeded when they agreed to cut one single on the proviso that Wald would terminate his relentless haranguing of the record company. Yet it was the B-side to the single I Believe in Music, a reworking of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice song, “I don’t know how to love him” which ultimately resulted in a hit for Helen in 1971.
In 1972 she released the seminal song I am Woman which she penned with Ray Burton. The song was released at the perfect moment in history and encapsulated the zeitgeist of the time becoming an anthem for the growing movement of feminism and equality which was sweeping through many nations. Even now it still evokes sentiments of female empowerment and the cultivation of a sisterhood. As Reddy herself said of its conception,
“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about. I thought all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken and abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.” The song was to prove to bring success for Helen Reddy and brought with it a succession of hit singles and albums. Reddy was said to have made over forty million dollars in her career.
Reddy divorced Wald in 1981 after it was discovered that he had wasted away much of her fortune, caused many of her professional relationships to sour and developed a cocaine habit costing $100.000 annually. Helen had a brief film and television career most notably appearing in the film Pete’s Dragon in 1977 before turning to musicals in productions of Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine. She retired from performing in 2002 and moved back to her native Australia where she retrained as a hypnotherapist. She returned to the stage only briefly to sing I Am Woman to 750 000 people on the Women’s march on Washington. Reddy may have made her mark on the seventies with her empowering anthem, but her longevity is still to be seen in the fact that she was able to inspire subsequent generations and no doubt she will continue to do so for future decades.
I have to say that as much as I love Helen Reddy, I cannot really imagine anyone would watch this film unless they were a fan or wanted something on in the background whilst doing a lengthy daily chore. The film is very reminiscent of those Channel 5 afternoon movies put on during the post-lunch energy slump, when one might be about to doze off. The actress who plays Helen is far too young and never seems to age, neither does she possess even a smattering of Ms Reddy’s star quality. It is all a little too glossy, a little too one-dimensional and a little too saccharine sweet for my tastes. Even the costumes appear far too colourful for the orange-brown tones of the Seventies. Helen Reddy’s voice is instantly recognisable and although some of her original voice recordings are used in the film it becomes apparent when they belong to someone else. Like Karen Carpenter, Helen Reddy’s tone is rich, and fluid and it is certainly not easy to replicate. Having said all that though, I did enjoy the chance to listen once again to some of Helen Reddy’s best songs including Angie Baby, Ruby Red Dress and Delta Dawn.
I Am Woman is currently available on Netflix streaming service in the UK or you can listen to many of Helen’s greatest hits on YouTube.
Princess Mary The First Modern Princess by Elisabeth Basford is published by The History Press on 5th February 2021.