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Moving Portrait of the Star’s New Reality

Moving Portrait of the Star’s New Reality

In the world of celebrity documentaries, hagiographies reign supreme. Rare is the film that fulfills its promises of intimacy, vulnerability and never-before-seen perspectives. The films are generally risk-avoidant exercises that have perfected the optical illusion of making subjects seem closer than they actually are. 

I Am: Celine Dion abandons tricks of the eye for an unflinching look at the subject’s new reality. The doc chronicles the Canadian singer’s struggles with Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS), a rare neurological disorder that causes muscular rigidity and severe spasms. After years of gesturing toward symptoms related to the condition, Dion shared a full account of her health issues in a December 2022 Instagram post. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reach out to you,” Dion says in the video, looking into the camera with warm intensity. Her voice trembles with the weight of sadness and disappointment. She continues: “As you know I’ve always been an open book, I wasn’t ready to say anything before, but I’m ready now.”

I Am: Celine Dion

The Bottom Line

The rare celebrity doc that fulfills its promise of intimacy.

Release date: Tuesday, June 25
Director: Irene Taylor

Rated PG,
1 hour 42 minutes

In I Am: Celine Dion, the singer demonstrates the extent of her readiness. Directed by Irene Taylor (Leave No Trace, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements), the film builds on the confessional energy of the Instagram video by inviting fans to bear witness to her struggles with SPS. It is at once a moving tribute to Dion’s legacy, a peek into how this condition has challenged her gifts and an attempt to help the pop star wrestle with what this means for her future.

Taylor, working with DP Nick Midwig, fashions a verité-style documentary that keeps audiences close to Dion as she hangs out with her children, undergoes extensive rehab and immunotherapy and tries to rebuild her sense of self. What does it mean that her body’s internal war has debilitated her voice, which she calls “the conductor of her life?”

Answering this question is painful. I Am: Celine Dion begins a year before Dion’s announcement and follows the star through 2021, when she rarely left her palatial home in Nevada. The film opens with Dion talking about the impact of SPS on her body. She explains muscle stiffening and spasms with the candor of acceptance and her signature humor. But when she opens up about how this affects her singing, how her respiratory muscles constrict her abilities, her voice quivers and her eyes well. A demonstration, in which Dion’s voice cracks and buckles under the strain of a few notes, follows. “I don’t want people to hear that,” the star says, almost whispering. 

This introduction makes immediately clear the degree to which Dion’s life has changed with SPS. No longer can the balladeer fiercely belt the tearful lyrics of her heavyweight discography for hours. She can no longer record three songs in a night or put on performances of a lifetime week after week.

Dion sings in registers that require less work, as demonstrated later when she records a track for the Netflix movie Love Again starring Priyanka Chopra. Taylor and her editors Richard Comeau and J. Christian Jensen stitch together a number of Dion’s session takes to show the effort required for the singer to do what once came so naturally. Through moments like these the director builds an affecting project of contrasts: A portrait of Dion, past and present. 

When Taylor and Dion dig into the past, the results are edifying. A trip to the singer’s warehouse, stocked with costumes, shoes and other memorabilia from her decades-long career, is a chance to review her legacy. Dion, now 56, rummages through the items while highlighting key moments in her career. She talks about her relationship to fashion, remarking with a wink that her shoe size ranges from a 6 to a 10 because she doesn’t mind suffering for the perfect piece.

Taylor intersperses concert footage through this interview, including one from a 2018 tour stop in Sydney where Dion rocked a dramatic gold power suit from her collaboration with Law Roach. Other looks over the years are featured, showing how Dion’s style always seemed at once ahead of its time and of the moment. “I think we created our own magic,” the singer says at one point about her many years of performing. 

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The “we” is critical. Throughout I Am: Celine Dion, the Canadian singer expresses profound gratitude for members of her team, from the people who helped stage her tours to the medical professionals, including Dr. Amanda Piquet, helping her manage SPS. There are no interviews with this supporting cast, however. I Am: Celine Dion doesn’t supplement its subject’s testimony with anyone. Instead, like that Instagram video from 2022, it functions as a direct communion between herself and her fans. 

Dion genuinely believes in the power of moving farther together. “I didn’t invent myself, I didn’t create myself,” the Québecoise singer says at one point in the documentary. One wonders if this commitment to teamwork stems from a childhood spent with a big family. Dion was born in Québec to a family of 14 children. According to the singer, her parents worked hard to make sure the kids would never be aware of any suffering. Her mother invented dishes when there was little food in the fridge and Dion counts her siblings as her first audience.

If there’s a flaw to I Am: Celine Dion it’s in the way this kind of personal history fits into the broader story. Taylor uses archival home footage to breeze through Dion’s younger years and her marriage to her late manager René Angélil, who was 26 years her senior, but they come off as less considered than other parts of the doc. Forays into these parts of Dion’s life shake confidence in an otherwise fine project by introducing questions and establishing connections that the movie neither answers nor explores. 

I Am: Celine Dion steadies itself when it returns to the intersection of Dion’s career with her medical condition. The film highlights just how much music means to the singer. She uses any opportunity — creating a get well video with her sons, doing physical therapy — to break into song.

In interviews, Dion works through her anxieties and concerns. She worries about not being able to control her voice in the same way or whether or not she has the energy to live life as she once knew it. There are moments in the doc when the singer, in the middle of an activity, will remark on her legs and other parts of her body feeling sore or tired.

The film is as much about the singer as it is about the realities of living with a chronic illness. Taylor does not shy away from sitting in on difficult points in Dion’s life, including one painful scene in which the singer seizes up after a busy and overstimulating afternoon. Her foot stiffens first and then her entire body locks in place. As her doctor moves Dion to lie on her side and urges her to take deep breaths, tears stream down the singer’s face.

This palpable and visceral glimpse into her pain is a jolting reminder of the toll this condition has taken on Dion not just as a star but as a person. 

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