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I Am: Celine Dion Is the Opposite of a Vanity Project

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In one of I Am: Celine Dion’s many philosophizing monologues, the eponymous global singing icon compares herself to an apple tree. In the past, Dion explains, she gave people apples—“the best, and I shine them”—a metaphor for the talents she has shared with her massive global audience. But now, "my branches are starting to fall sometimes, get crooked, and those branches are starting to produce a little less apples.” Yet, she continues, “there are still as many people in line.” Dion’s conclusion to this analogy is heartbreaking: “I don't want them to wait in line if I don’t have apples.”

The documentary, directed by the Oscar-nominated filMMAker Irene Taylor and now streaming on Prime Video, finds the French-Canadian chanteuse contemplating a life without a big enough yield for her adoring public. In December 2022, after multiple rounds of concert cancellations that year, the singer announced that she had been diagnosed with stiff person syndrome, a rare autoimmune neurological disorder that can cause spasms and muscle stiffness. Since then, she has not performed in public and has released just a handful of new songs. I Am: Celine Dion captures a portion of the time she has taken off to rehabilitate (roughly a year before and some time after her announcement)—time, per a title card, that found Dion rarely leaving home.

I Am: Celine Dion is intimate and gently moving, more a portrait of a superstar in her downtime than one of superstardom itself. We watch Dion, now 56, play with her three sons (two of whom are now 13, their older brother 23) in the Vegas mansion they share. She feeds her dog Bear (who, per the pre-credits dedication, died between filming and release), nurses a guinea pig to Health with a syringe, fixes her own coffee, and vacuums her own floor. She is often without makeup, and the grays in her hair have not been dyed over. Contemporary slice-of-life documentaries about musical personalities are often indistinguishable from audio-visual press releases, but I Am: Celine Dion is, in many ways, about as far from a vanity project as one of these things gets. Even her trademark goofiness, which has been so endearing to even those who aren’t fond of her dramatic adult contemporary balladry, is turned down to a whisper or presented via a few vintage clips.

Read more: What It’s Like to Live With Stiff Person Syndrome

For much of the doc, we see subtle signs of her illness, for as Dion explains, “It’s not seeable.” Some immobile fingers here, difficulty walking there, a bit of balance lost. But as Dion tells and shows viewers, SPS has ravaged the pristine voice that made her such an undeniable draw for millions of fans worldwide since she debuted as a pre-teen more than 40 years ago. She explains in one scene that the rigidness of her chest in front of her lungs makes singing a challenge and then illustrates via a blown-out and raspy rendition of Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” After missing a shocking amount of notes for a vocalist who for decades has been known as a perfectionist powerhouse, Dion notes that, "It’s very difficult to me to show this to you,” while crying.

That leads right into live footage from past performances of Dion annihilating her signature English-language song, “My Heart Will Go On” (from the soundtrack to the 1997 blockbuster Titanic). Taylor and editors Richard Comeau and Christian Jensen routinely flip back and forth between archival footage, in which Dion delivered the seemingly impossible, and contemporary footage, in which the impossible is no longer within reach. This temporal flashing back and forward allows the audience to understand the stakes here on a sensory level. Also featured is vintage home-video footage of Dion pregnant with her first child, René-Charles Angélil, while trying to find flats in her wall-to-wall, moving shoe closet (she fails). There’s footage of her son’s birth and, in a surreal turn, a news broadcast about her delivery on the TV in her hospital room.

In a way, I Am: Celine Dion is a meditation on aging and what happens to stars whose abilities diminish with time, rare diagnosis or not. As tragic and debilitating as it is, Dion’s condition gives her a reason to externalize a lot of feelings that many stars never want to acknowledge. Nobody wants to talk about what it means to be past their prime, but SPS has forced Dion to contemplate just that. The documentary is also an excuse to clear the air in far greater depth than her 2022 announcement offered. “I can’t lie anymore,” says Dion, who blamed concert cancellations on sinus and ear infections as she struggled to understand just what was going on with her Health. She had been stricken with SPS symptoms for nearly two decades before her diagnosis. While initially concealable with some strategic maneuvering (like holding out the mic to the audience on particularly difficult notes), they eventually took an unmistakable toll on her voice, finally causing her to leave the stage.

I Am: Céline Dion
A still from I Am: Celine DionCourtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

Because of her disease’s general subtlety and Taylor’s light hand, the big, tragic moments are relatively spare—the sadness that permeates the film is the creeping kind, the gradual realization both for her and for us that the Celine Dion that many know and love may never be the same performer again. The movie takes a more explicit turn in its last act, as Dion records the title song from the 2023 rom-com in which she appeared, Love Again. The singer, who once could record three songs in a night, struggles to get through a few lines. She prefaces the session by saying, “If it cracks and it doesn’t work, there’s nothing I can do,” but clearly she is demoralized by her voice’s lack of cooperation. “I wanna sing with joy. I wanna sing without thinking. I wanna sing without speed bumps along the way,” she says. 

She’s initially disappointed by the early playback and resolves to do better. And then, seemingly magically, she does. She finds a way to make the song work with her more brittle voice and nails several lines in a row. It’s a triumphant moment made only more so when that take is played back to her. She’s ecstatic at her performance.

Read more: The 21 Best Documentaries to Stream Right Now

And then, she starts to spasm. A brutal, extended scene captures her in a full-on seizure, face down on a table with a massage-style headrest, while under the observation of her Sports medicine therapist. For minutes, all she can do is whimper while she spasms, her hand bunched up tightly at her side. And then starts the wailing. This level of raw vulnerability is uncommon for stars of any echelon, let alone someone as reliably pristine (and consequently consumer-friendly on a global scale) as Dion. After the spasming subsides, Dion talks about her embarrassment. Her therapist suggests overstimulation from playback may have spurred the episode. For someone as animated, someone who seems naturally excitable and whose job is to be so, this presents a dileMMA that the documentary leaves unresolved. How can Celine Dion be Celine Dion if she can’t get overexcited?

No matter, she leaves in an air of determination: “If I can’t run, I’ll walk. If I can’t walk, I’ll crawl. But I won’t stop.” The documentary’s sleight of hand is to leave viewers both with a sense of hope and a lack of firm narrative resolution. We know that there aren’t guarantees in Dion’s future, but we also admire her will. A completely unhappy ending would make I Am: Celine Dion almost too much to bear, but the refusal to tie things up neatly underlines the relative grittiness of the project. It sticks the landing with the kind of calculation fit for a perfectionistic diva.

Before the New York premiere of I Am: Celine Dion on earlier this month, Dion previewed the apple story that she tells in the documentary. “I don't want you to wait in line anymore if I don’t have any shiny apples for you,” she told the crowd plaintively. But then, she said, she received a fan message that made her think differently. It said, "We’re not here for the apples. We’re here for the tree.” The crowd roared in solidarity and Dion seemed genuinely touched at the prospect of being taken for whom she is now. It may not be how she’d prefer to be seen, but it’s real.

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