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Interview:
Helen Reddy biopic "I Am Woman" roars onto screens
 

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Given her greatest musical, and cultural, achievement, there's no title more appropriate for a film about Helen Reddy than "I Am Woman."



The biopic -- which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and opens Friday, Sept. 11, in theaters and On Demand-- traces the trajectory of the Australian-born singer from her 1966 arrival in New York City as a hoodwinked contest winner through a career that included 15 Top 40 singles, three of which hit No. 1. Reddy, now 78 and retired in California, also made her mark in film and TV, even hosting her own variety show during the summer of 1973.



Nothing, however, was more impactful than "I Am Woman," the 1972 anthem, written by Reddy with Ray Burton that topped the charts, won a Grammy Award and remains a fixture of the equal rights movement. It is, understandably, as much a star of the movie as Reddy (played by Tilda Cobham-Hevey) and a philosophical framing device for Emma Jensen's script.



As "I Am Woman" finally roars onto screens and On Demand platforms, Cobham-Hevey and director and co-producer Unjoo Moon spoke by phone from Australia about the Reddy, the movie and the movement...







• The South Korean-born Moon, who made the 2012 documentary "The Zen of Bennett" (as in Tony), "wasn't old enough to have bought a Helen Reddy record" as a youth growing up in Australia during the 70s. But she definitely knew "I Am Woman." "I remember so clearly when the song used to come on the radio, the way it used to impact my mother and her friends. I used to sit in the back of the station wagon and they'd roll the window down and let their hair loose in the breeze and sing along really loudly. I just sort of equated (Reddy's) music with how it used to make women feel stronger and bolder. And then when I got to know the scope and the breadth of her career, the impact she had globally, I was amazed somebody hadn't already made a film about her."



• Learning more about Reddy also inspired the trajectory Moon wanted "I Am Woman" to take. “What I really responded to was the personal journey she'd been on, how it sort of encompassed the story of the women's movement in the 70s. That, for me, was personally why I wanted to tell the story. This is not a documentary; It's a fictionalized account of her life."



• Moon did have the blessing of Reddy herself, as well as her two children and ex-husband and manager Jeff Wald. "I think it's really important that we had their support to do this. I wasn't out to sensationalize their lives. What I promised I would do, I said to Helen and to the family, 'I'm not trying to get every single detail right, but I can promise you that I'm going to make a move that's true to the spirit of who you are, Helen, what your life is and the impact that you and your music had on people.' I think that even though they don't agree with everything in the movie, they really love the spirit of the music, and they have been incredibly supportive."



• Cobham-Hervey ("Burn," "Hotel Mumbai, "52 Tuesdays") was also aware of "I Am Woman" but did a crash course in Reddy to prepare herself to play the singer. “It was really one of the greatest joys, through this project, to get to learn about such an extraordinary woman. I was really amazed by her -- her incredible determination and her ability to stay so true to herself within that. She really had this belief in herself and this confidence, and I found that incredibly inspiring. It's not just a story about a pop star or a famous person we all know; It's really about a woman and her struggle to find her voice and be heard in her time."



• Cobham-Hervey didn't meet Reddy until after the film was finished, but through studying videos and writings -- including Reddy's 2006 memoir "The Woman I Am" -- had a sense of the nuances she wanted to capture. "There were a lot of things, like when she was performing I felt very amazed and in awe of her stillness, her ability to draw people in. She really held back and let people come to her. She had a very laid-back nature. I really tried to get her posture right, and way she stood and the way she walked. I tried to find as many little hooks as I could that I could emulate that would make people recognize Helen in me." Reddy's vocals in the film were performed by Australian singer Chelsea Cullen.



• A quirky fact; In 1978, Reddy sang backup for Kiss' Gene Simmons on the song "True Confessions" from his self-titled solo album.



• Moon says that showing the film to Reddy and her family was a special occasion. "I hadn't seen her for awhile. Before we (finished) the picture the producer (Rosemary Blight) decided that we really needed to show (Reddy) the film. So we went back to Los Angeles and screened it for her and her two children. The lights went down and it just put me in the moment -- 'Oh, Helen's singing on screen and there's the real Helen Reddy sitting in front of me,' and I had this moment of panic, 'What if she doesn't like it?' But that was pretty short-lived. She was singing along to the music. She was very engaged and at the end of the movie, when she read the final (still) card that the Equal Rights Amendment has never been passed into the (U.S.) constitution, I could tell that she was really moved. She started to cry -- not because she was sad but because she felt the impact of the movie and the story of her life, and she hugged her children and then she hugged me and I knew I had her blessing to continue the film."

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