‘I Am: Celine Dion’ Review: A Raw And Gut-Wrenching Documentary Reveals A Music Superstar Through Her Most Challenging Physical Trauma

When veteran documentary filmmaker Irene Taylor met Celine Dion via Zoom in winter 2021 about the prospect of doing a documentary chronicling Dion’s life and career, she had no idea where this would ultimately take both the subject and the director. In fact, Taylor confessed she wasn’t really a fan, not familiar with Dion’s personal story, her celebrated career selling over 250 million albums, or anything else about her. She only knew a few of the hit songs. But they bonded anyway. Taylor had done many Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated movies about everything from Boy Scouts to trees to deafness to polio, but nothing in this realm, and it certainly has turned into a film it did not start out to be, and that neither expected, but now will be shared with the world.

Hollywood is full of the movies, many made in the 1940s and ’50s, of major musical stars who go through personal trauma their fans don’t see as they eventually emerge triumphantly performing again on stage. Susan Hayward practically made a career of playing them in films like I’ll Cry Tomorrow and With a Song in My Heart. So did Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me. In a way, watching I Am: Celine Dion I thought of those films about great female stars who overcame the odds and persevered to return to glory in their extraordinary musical careers — a story made for a Hollywood ending. The difference here is in using the documentary format, allowing unfettered access, and in showing life as it happens in unexpected moments, Dion’s story is still being written, her “triumphant” Hollywood comeback still a work in progress at best as she invites us into her struggles, her hopes, her optimism, and her heartbreaks with no artifice in sight.

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Given the keys to 800 hours of previously unseen archival video and photos over the last 50 years from Dion’s vault, Taylor had the goods to make a feel-good documentary that would be a love letter from the star to her fans. It would cover her Vegas residency at Caesars Palace, her world tour, her life at home with her kids, and her storied career as the youngest of 14 kids growing up in Quebec who would become a superstar beloved around the world.

All of that is there, but the scenario changed over the course of the year Taylor and her cinematographer Nick Midvig would chronicle Dion. The increasing unexplained pain Dion had been experiencing on and off for years was now, finally, formally diagnosed as stiff person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects one in a million. Difficulty breathing, rigidity, gut-wrenching muscle spasms are just part of the symptoms, with stress often a trigger. Taylor’s and Midvig’s cameras capture all of this, from the diagnosis that few others knew about to the decision and video recording in December 2022 when the star decided to reveal it to her fans. The residency, the world tour, everything was canceled as she battles this incurable condition that has severely threatened her career; it directly affects her voice, something she vividly demonstrates attempting to sing in the way her legion of fans have always heard her.

Make no mistake, the vintage Dion is on display here with generous use of past concert footage. The archival material is also well-used throughout, including her marriage to the love of her life and career-long manager Rene Angelil. There is footage shown of his funeral as well. The sacrifices of her mother and father for their family of 13 children is documented too. Her home life with her sons, and beloved dog Bear, is all on view. In many ways this is a gift, something she can still give to her fans.

But this film is ultimately about resiliency in the face of one of life’s cruelest tricks, taking away the engine that drives Dion’s existence. “My voice was always the conductor of my whole life,” she says, and suddenly it was in crisis. She talks of the need for pills to get through a performance, first one, then two, then five. Over the course of the year of filming Dion ventured out from her Las Vegas mansion only three times. We see them all as she comforts herself in a visit to her past in the incredible 12,000-foot warehouse that contains every item, gowns, shoes (so many shoes), childhood ballerina outfit, you name it. The camera is also there when Dion goes to a sound studio to fulfil a commitment to finish a movie, her first, she did before the pandemic. She now must dub the French version of that film, a romantic comedy called Love Again, as circumstances have changed in her life since filming it.

And then there is the stunning sequence that captures Dion back in the recording studio for the first time in three years, attempting to sing a new song and going through all the pain, second guessing, perfectionism, frustration and finally satisfaction that managed to get to a special result. Then it all goes dark when shortly after, cameras still rolling, she feels a muscle spasm in her foot, her body stiffens up, and her sports physical therapists go to work laying her down on the table face-down in unimaginable pain and body breakdown. Warning: this scene, as raw as it gets, is excruciating to watch, especially knowing that no one there, including the filmmaker, would know how it would turn out. Was Dion going to die with the cameras close on her face and still rolling? It feels invasive, but this is a person who for a year put her hair back in a bun, wore little or no makeup, and insisted the cameras show her as she is — now versus then.

Forty minutes later the episode was over, and she gets up. Her therapist cues one of her favorite songs (“Who I Am” by Wyn Starks) and Dion sings along, ever the performer even in a moment like this one. It is the new reality of her life, and one still waiting for the happy ending we see in those showbiz stories where there is always a comeback. “I always have a plan B,” she says. “I still see myself dance and sing. If I can’t run, I’ll walk. If I can’t walk, I’ll crawl. But I won’t stop. I won’t stop.” Hopefully there will be a sequel for Celine Dion.

Producers are Stacy Lorts, Tom Mackay, Julie Begey Seureau, and Taylor.

Title: I Am: Celine Dion
Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios
Release Date: June 25, 2024 (Prime Video)
Director: Irene Taylor
With: Celine Dion
Rating: PG
Running time: 1 hr 42 min

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