Warning: Mild spoilers are ahead for I Am Woman.
Before seeing the film, I, like many others, knew Reddy’s 1971 song “I Am Woman," the unofficial anthem of the women’s liberation movement thanks to its opening declaration: I am woman. Hear me roar. Forty-two years later, Katy Perry wrote "Roar," a lyrical nod to Reddy's early female empowerment anthem, which, in recent years, has found new life in Burger King commercials and on Women's March protest signs. Unfortunately, that’s where my knowledge of Reddy ends. “That’s exactly how I felt," Moon tells Refinery29 over the phone from Sydney, Australia.
That is, until she sat next to Reddy at an awards show six years ago. "I actually made my husband swap seats with me so I could sit next to her," she says. The two talked about the singer's life and career and Moon quickly realized that the Australian singer's legacy wasn't tied to a song, but a movement. "That is why I made the movie," she says. "I wanted the world to know that Helen Reddy was so much more than the woman who sang 'I Am Woman.'"
Why then is the movie named after that song? The title is "sort of ironic," Moon admits, but it's also symbolic. "Part of Helen’s story is the history of women as well," she says.
Moon grew up listening to Reddy's music, but only later did she realize the impact those songs had on her mom and her friends. "When those songs came on the radio they just somehow became stronger and bolder because of it," she says. Particularly, "I Am Woman," which preached women's equality at a time when women in the U.S. couldn't yet get their own credit card without a man's co-sign. (Reddy was one of the first women to get her own, as the film shows.) "The ‘70s were such a big time of change for women," Moon says, "and I think I equated Helen so clearly with that."
I Am Woman highlights Reddy's successes and even recreates some of those moments like her 1973 Grammy win for "I Am Woman" in which she thanked God "because She makes everything possible." But the film is just as interested in her struggle to be taken seriously as an artist and a woman. A struggle that began in 1966 when the single mom landed in New York and was told by her prospective label that they have enough female singers, but certainly didn't end with "I Am Woman." As the film shows, writing the song was easy, but convincing her label to release the song was hard.
The scene in which a table full of male record execs tell Helen, played by newcomer Tilda Cobham-Hervey, that her song is "man-hating" and "kind of angry," is based on a true story. (It also felt all too real for Moon, who says she had to convince "a bunch of young male execs who had never heard of Helen Reddy" to let her make a movie about Helen Reddy.) Unlike those men, the actors in the scene felt uncomfortable talking to Reddy that way.
"I’d be like, 'You have to be tougher on her because it’s the 1970s and you don’t really see her as an equal,'" Moon says. "They all sort of looked up while we’re shooting and said, 'Oh, but Helen Reddy’s so intimidating.'"
Back then, she certainly wasn't seen that way, which is why Reddy's then husband and agent, Jeff Wald (Evan Peters) had to convince the record label that the song would be a hit. The track ended up being more than that, though. It was a mantra for women who knew they deserved more and were willing to fight for it.
The song's rise to the top occurred just as the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) started to wage. (The recent FX miniseries Mrs. America covered the fight for ratification, which continues in 2020.) But Reddy didn't realize the power her song had on the women's movement until 1989 when she was asked to perform it at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
The film recreates the emotional performance, which marks only the second time "I Am Woman" is heard in the film. The song now represeting a much different time in Reddy's life compared to when she wrote it. "The second time you hear it, it’s really about the women and the way they’ve embraced it. The legacy it will have," Moon says. "But it’s also about her personal journey."
I Am Woman brings context to the song, which would come to mirror the story of Reddy's own life spent fighting for equality. When Reddy first saw the film, Moon says the singer cried happy tears. "I was relieved," the director says. "But also felt really proud that I helped create a legacy for her."