September 5, 2019
Music has always been in the blood for Sydney composer Rafael May.
He says he was constantly creating compositions as a child and the first major work he penned was a rock opera adaptation of Macbeth at high school.
“It was not too bad,” he says of his debut epic.
“We had a cast of thousands because you didn’t have to pay anyone because they were in school, and it was a big hit for all of four days.”
Fast-forward a few decades and May, 54, who lives and works out of his home and studio in Bronte, is behind similarly epic productions — but with a considerably longer shelf-life.
Two films he has scored are premiering at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival this week, including a biopic that celebrates one of Australia’s most powerful, and perhaps under-sung, musical legends.
The story of Helen Reddy is being told in new biopic, I Am Woman, named after her iconic 1970s song that galvanised the feminist movement and still remains as relevant today against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.
The film is directed by Australian filmmaker Unjoo Moon, produced by The Sapphires’ Rosemary Blight and stars Adelaide actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy.
“Helen Reddy’s story is incredible,” says May. “And the more I found out about it, the more I wanted to know.
May says Moon has been on a mission to spread the word of Reddy’s incredible success, including millions of album sales in the US, her syndicated TV show and the fact that she played Las Vegas shows twice a night.
The biopic will have its world premiere in Toronto on Thursday — its Australian release is scheduled for next year — and May says he felt it important his score matched Reddy’s power and the scale of the film.
“The music score in between can’t be feeble,” he says. “It has to have her strength.”
May worked with a 20-piece orchestra, producing about 30 minutes of music for the film.
He says in early screenings audiences were moved to tears, not least by the focus on her fraught relationship with husband and manager Jeff Wald (played by Evan Peters).
Reddy, now 77, has been out of the limelight for some time and has been diagnosed with dementia, but May says the longstanding appeal of I Am Woman is simple.
The other film featuring May’s score in the Toronto festival is Hearts and Bones by Australian filmmaker Ben Lawrence, about a war photographer (Hugo Weaving) and his relationship with a South Sudanese refugee (Andrew Luri).
This film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year but gets its first international outing in Toronto.
May says the music here is more on an intimate level, featuring shimmering guitars and electric violins, to reflect the film’s themes of pain and loss.
He says he hopes Toronto audiences embrace both movies.
“They’re very different films. One is a much bigger scale. The other one’s very intimate. I can’t wait to see how people react.”