Review | ‘I Am: Celine Dion’ captures the superstar at her most vulnerable

Calling Céline Dion one in a million undersells the unlikeliness of her career. What are the odds that the skinny girl with the crooked smile, the youngest of 14 children from a tiny town outside Montreal, would become world-renowned for her powerhouse vocals, breaking records and bringing audiences to tears with some of the century’s most memorable ballads?

These days, after more than three decades in the spotlight, Dion is grappling with less fortunate one-in-a-million odds: In 2022, she announced that she had been diagnosed with stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disease that causes muscular rigidity, chronic pain and — in Dion’s case — an inability to sing at the level she once did.

Dion’s struggles with the disorder and her attempts to recover, rehabilitate and return to the stage are the focus of “I Am: Celine Dion,” a documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Irene Taylor that serves as a revealing portrait of an artist who can no longer use the instrument that once brought her and millions around the world so much joy.

“I Am” is also a reminder of just how significant an artist Dion was at the peak of her career, from the versatility and power of her three-octave range to the cultural impact she had on pop music and culture at large. And in the age of tightly controlled music documentaries that capture pop stars at their zeniths, Dion is again paving the way by trading the practiced precision of her performances for glimpses of her most vulnerable moments.

When it was first announced in 2021, the film that would become “I Am” was billed as the “definitive feature” about Dion, covering her life story and career accomplishments. In the film’s final form, that story is told with a broad-strokes approach that keeps the film grounded in Dion’s fraught present.

Much of the documentary takes place at Dion’s gated mansion outside Las Vegas. This is where the singer lives with her twin sons, rarely leaving while she deals with the effects of her condition. Her home is a gilded cage: ornate and elegant but lived-in, full of designer labels, antiques and priceless art, but with medical equipment on view and stacks of pills amid her skin care products.

It is this home from which she reveals, in full-frame close-ups, what she has been dealing with, mostly in secret, for 17 years. At first, her condition manifested as random vocal spasms, reducing the elasticity of her voice, like Play-Doh left out on the counter. A disease of the muscles, tendons and nerves, Dion’s illness progressed, affecting her balance and her ability to walk. But it is her inability to sing that draws her tears: Since she was a girl, her dream — as shared in an early interview — was to be able to sing all of her life. Her dream is now imperiled.

“I Am” reveals what Dion’s life is now, from quotidian moments such as parenting her twins and caring for pets to receiving medical treatment and physical therapies. Her journey to the present is shown through clips drawn from home movies and her decades of concert and TV appearances — memories of her loving but sometimes impoverished family life, singing at her brother’s wedding when she was 5 years old, her rise to international superstar, giving birth to her first son in 2001 — the passage of time marked by the growth of her kids.

At one point, Dion takes the camera crew to a warehouse where material collected from her life, onstage and off, is archived: every designer dress and pair of shoes, road cases and luggage, bins of her children’s toys and artwork. She says it will all “live on” with the same air of melancholy that informs confessions such as, “I think I was very good; I had some stuff that was amazing.” At times, as in this museum to the self, Dion eulogizes herself while still alive.

The film documents how Dion has remained a pop culture fixture in the past decade, from appearances on late night shows to a music video with Deadpool. She also appeared as a fictional version of herself in a 2023 rom-com, “Love Again,” which revolves around a young woman who looks for love after the death of her fiancé.

As Dion is dubbing the “Love Again” dialogue into French, her on-screen counterpart mentions the 2016 death of her husband, manager René Angélil, and she is visibly affected. The film cuts together footage of Angélil’s funeral with a stirring performance of Dion’s now-more-relevant ballad “All By Myself.” (Controversy over the couple’s 26-year age gap, and the fact that Angélil discovered Dion when she was 12, is not covered in the film).

While grieving her husband, Dion spent the past several years grappling with the loss of her vocal abilities. She confesses to having used Valium and other drugs to help her function; she doesn’t sound dramatic, as she fears, when she says she “could have died” during this period, evoking memories of everyone from Elvis to Michael Jackson. She explains how she used tricks to sidestep her issues at concerts, but attributing cancellations to various ailments wasn’t cutting it anymore: “The lie is too heavy now.”

The film climaxes and concludes with Dion’s attempt to record the title track on the “Love Again” soundtrack. After an unsuccessful attempt, she’s able to capture some of that old magic. But the session proves to be a “battering ram” to her nervous system, and a physical therapy session quickly escalates into a medical emergency of spasms and a seizure as Dion groans through a rictus grin. Taylor’s unflinching camera captures the bracing scene, and Dion’s choice to leave the cameras on and include the incident demonstrate a level of vulnerability that pop stars at her level rarely express.

After she recovers from the attack, her physical therapist tells her that this is not the end of her journey. Dion still has hope that she will dance and sing again one day. “If I can’t walk, I’ll crawl, but I won’t stop,” she says, defiant. The odds of that might be one-in-a-million, but that’s nothing new to Céline Dion.

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