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Helen Reddy and the original feminist anthem: new film will share untold story

I Am Woman made its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

I Am Woman made its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is seen portraying Helen Reddy in the biopic I Am Woman. (WestEnd Films)

Before "I woke up like this" and "girl power," there was "I am woman, hear me roar."

In 1972, Australian singer Helen Reddy released "I Am Woman," a song that went on to become the unofficial anthem for the women's liberation movement. On its surface, the number was sunny and bright, but Reddy's lyrics were fuelled by anger at the injustices of sexism. "You can bend but never break me," Reddy sang with conviction. "'Cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal." 

In the almost 50 years since it hit the airwaves, "I Am Woman" has taken on a life of its own. It's been referenced on The Simpsons, we've seen the women of Sex and the City sing this at karaoke, and Burger King even rewrote the song into a distasteful "manthem" for a commercial. In this game of broken telephone over the decades, the No. 1 hit song has lost its origins, leaving people — even music critiques — unaware of the person and story behind it. 

This is why Australian director Unjoo Moon wanted to tell Reddy's story now, in a new biopic titled I Am Woman

Moon herself admits that she didn't know everything about Reddy when she first met her six years ago at an awards season event, but distinct memories of the song being played in her childhood home signaled something poignant for the filmmaker. 

"It impacted my mother and her friends; this song changed them, it would take them out of their suburban environment," Moon recalls during a press stop at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere. "Most of them were homemakers and mothers, and suddenly this song made them reach beyond who they were and I just loved that feeling." 

Actors Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle MacDonald and director Unjoo Moon at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. (Getty Images for IMDb)

The film chronicles the crucial years leading up to, and following, Reddy's successful hit. Actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey turns in a powerfully moving performance as Reddy here alongside Evan Peters, who plays Reddy's now-ex-husband Jeff Wald, who got Reddy's music in front of dismissive label execs, and Danielle MacDonald, who takes on the role of the pioneering rock critic Lillian Roxon, who was a close friend of Reddy's. 

While Reddy and Wald's relationship was tumultuous (Wald suffered from a destructive cocaine addiction), Cobham-Hervey and Peters argue the film depicts an incredible love story that had an expiration date, but which shone brightly while it lasted. "They went on this incredible journey together," Cohbam-Hervey explained. "They were a team." 

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 1977 file photo, Ms. Helen Reddy, composer-singer of what has become a marching song for Women's lib, tells of mail she gets from housewives, who say the best-selling record -- "I Am Woman"--bucks them up. Reddy, who employes a male housekeeper, is married and a mother. In July 2012, Reddy comes out of retirement for an arts benefit concert in the Los Angeles area. (AP Photo/ilr, File) (The Associated Press)

Another throughline in the film is how Reddy's rise paralleled the oncoming second wave of feminism, showing how marches and the discussion around women's rights inspired Reddy's music. Those scenes reflect a fight that women continue to have in the U.S. and beyond today, but Moon and Cobham-Hervey are very proud of the progress women artists have made since, with infusing gender politics into songwriting.

In a particularly pointed scene in I Am Woman, Reddy recites the lyrics to Sandy Posey's 1966 song, "Born a Woman," aghast by the message: "And if you're born a woman/ you're born to be hurt/ you're born to be stepped on/ lied to, cheated on/ and treated like dirt." 

"We've come a long way from that," Moon laughs. "The fact that women artists can really express how they feel now is incredible." Cobham-Hervey adds: "I'm really excited to be a young woman in this industry right now. Now is the most amazing time to be able to share stories." 

In an era when Beyoncé can perform in front of a giant "Feminism" sign and Taylor Swift is advocating for the Equality Act on live television, now feels like a timely opportunity to revisit the roads that Reddy paved. It's time to hear her roar once again.

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