Female-centred musical biopics seldom stray from the path of a shining star that fades due to male jealousy, lousy personal decisions, and some form of addiction.
The gold standard is A Star is Born, which has been made three times since the original 1937 non-musical version. Its story of an actress and her toxic relationship with her husband-producer was based on the real-life tragedy of now forgotten silent movie star Colleen Moore and John McCormick.
When A Star is Born was remade as a musical in 1954, it starred Judy Garland at a time when her personal life and public career were in decline. That was highlighted further in 2018’s Judy, with Renée Zellweger’s brilliant performance as Garland at London’s Talk of the Town in 1968.
That was also the year Australian singer Helen Reddy, then aged 27, moved from New York to Los Angeles after marrying her manager, Jeff Wald. They had met two years earlier after Reddy had won a talent contest in Sydney, that promised her an audition with Mercury Records.
That didn’t eventuate when she was told there was no demand for female soloists. But Wald had more luck pushing his talented wife, finally landing a deal with Capitol Records, that included singles such as “One Way Ticket”, “I Believe in Music”, and the Jesus Christ Superstar song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Fame finally arrived with her feminist anthem “I Am Woman”.
She wrote the lyrics based on her experience of the music industry’s misogynistic culture and the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. It was set to music by Australian pop group member Ray Burton.
Capitol viewed the song as anti-men, but allowed it on an album. In 1972, a year after its release, it reached the top of the hit parade, and Reddy was a star. At her peak, in the 1970s, she had 15 singles in Billboard’s top 40, with eight going to No. 1.
But fame wasn’t without a personal cost, as depicted in I Am Woman (Transmission). It opens with Reddy’s arrival in New York with her three-year-old daughter, a friendship with music journalist Lillian Roxon, and a precarious career as a lounge singer.
The move to Los Angeles is a turning point, and Wald’s management agency also takes on the likes of Tiny Tim, Deep Purple and Sylvester Stallone.
But Wald’s destructive cocaine addiction leads to separation in 1981, with Reddy later revealing abuse had a history in her family.
Screenwriter Emma Jensen and Korean-born Australian director Unjoo Moon play down some of the public record, and depict Reddy more as a victim than a forceful personality.
While Australia’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey bears a close facial resemblance to Reddy, her concert performances are less convincing. Evan Peters has the thankless role of the hustler Wald against the virtuous Reddy.
The end credits record his recovery from addiction, but not Reddy’s death on September 29, just shy of her 80th year, at a rest home in California.
Rating: Mature audiences. 116 minutes.
She Dies Tomorrow
The woman at the centre of this mental health drama shares the same first name as the writer-director Amy Seimetz, suggesting an autobiographical connection. Her screen appearances include the female lead in Upstream Color (2013), which also depends more on mood than character or plot. Her debut as director, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), showed a couple at the extremities of their emotions. It also starred Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucky Audley, whose latest breakup sparks another descent into depression. A virus-like contagion of tomorrow’s impending doom spreads to others. While this sounds unlikely, the compensation is that Seimetz captures today’s fascination with anxiety, and that the future is not worth living. The heightened use of visual effects often replaces dialogue, giving powerful cinematic expression to experiences that are far from normal.
Rating: Mature audiences. 86 minutes.
The Mystery of Henri Pick (Le mystère Henri Pick)
France’s pervasive literary culture – said to produce more writers than readers – is backed up by the attention it receives in the cinema. Most recently, Non-fiction/Doubles vies (2018) featured personal scandals in the Parisian publishing world. It is also the setting for writer-director Rémi Bezançon’s adaptation of David Foenkinos’s “whydunnit” bestseller. A prominent critic (Fabrice Luchini) digs into the background of a celebrated novel by a previously unknown, but dead, writer. He suspects a hoax, and publicly says so, losing his TV job and marriage. The author was said to be a provincial pizza shop owner, who had never been known to have written a word. The novel was discovered in a library of unpublished manuscripts. That leads the critic to coastal Brittany, where the rest of the plot unfolds. Eventually the real Henri Pick is revealed, with plenty of literary allusions along the way. The cast includes Camille Cottin (the mother in The Dazzled/Les éblouis) as Pick’s daughter and Alice Isaaz as the ambitious young publisher.
Rating: Mature audiences. 100 minutes.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin specialises in crackling dialogue for intricate real-life stories, from Steve Jobs and The Social Network, to Moneyball and Molly’s Game. He first drafted a script in 2007, on the one-year courtroom drama of seven anti-Vietnam war protesters arrested after the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But the Hollywood writers’ strike put it on ice. It has resurfaced in a presidential election year as a reminder that history, even after 52 years, can still be as fresh as today’s headlines. The A-list cast includes Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Mark Rylance as defence lawyer William Kunstler, and Jordan Gordon-Levitt as the prosecutor. The defendants were mostly celebrity revolutionaries, including Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). The case was one of the first initiatives of the newly-elected Richard Nixon, using a federal law that forbade inciting riots across state borders.
Rating: Mature audiences. 129 minutes.