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‘I Am: Celine Dion’ Review: A Vivid and Heartbreaking Documentary

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The queen of power ballads, Céline Dion, is a surprisingly unbiased documentary about her struggle with a rare neurological disorder. She lies in the fetal position on the floor, surrounded by staff. Someone calls 911. Someone asks her if she’s in pain, to which she can only groan. The scene is fleeting, terrifying and brief. When Dion says living with stiff-person syndrome has been hard, she means it. Like her music, which has broken down the emotional defenses of millions in many languages, “I Am: Céline Dion” is unashamedly sentimental, intensely sincere and, as a true pop diva, almost ego-free, with a few exceptions. (I want another hour of tours of her vast clothing warehouse in Las Vegas.)

And the film alternates between archival footage of performances from director Eileen Taylor’s 30-plus-year career and Dion’s new reality, shifting between the poles of recovery. High note after high note thumps onstage, she nearly blows off the microphone during a ’90s recording session, then cuts to footage of Dion shuffling around her Las Vegas home with her aging Labrador. For much of the film, Dion seems to be lamenting her calling. She’s forgone the makeup, hair dye and star accessories (apart from her enormous house and crew), opting instead for a simple white shirt, a simple bun and a raw desire to get back onstage. And yet, as she sings behind the camera, she begins talking to one of her sons. Rest assured, Celine may have taken a little time off, but she’s still Celine: vibrant, open, a true entertainer and a true eccentric.

At the beginning of the film, it switches to “a year ago,” though it’s not entirely clear which one, but it’s the period between her much-anticipated Las Vegas residency in 2021 being canceled for unspecified health reasons and her diagnosis going public in December 2022. Taylor’s filming schedule is her recovery process – Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS) has no cure, and Dion revealed that she has been battling the condition for almost 20 years, sometimes with somewhat unclear amounts of near-lethal Valium. SPS causes muscle stiffness and, in some cases, severe spasms. It’s the brain’s faulty response to overstimulation from noise or stress. It’s a particularly cruel fate for a woman who is so attuned to the power of emotion and so eager to evoke exaggerated emotions that she quit her co-producer’s company.

The producers on the film were called Feeling. Productions. At the film’s New York premiere, Dion’s first red carpet since announcing her diagnosis, Taylor revealed that Dion’s only request for the project was that she not tell anyone else about her. She should talk about herself. (Dion, as always, took about 10 minutes, between rapturous cheers and hyper-dramatic pauses, to thank Taylor, her neurologist, and her kids.) And then she talks about her family, and her shoes, and her voice, and her: the “conductor” of her life, but in a straitjacket because of her illness. SPS means she can’t get enough air to hit the high notes, as she tearfully demonstrated to herself, and certainly to some of the audience. And most importantly, about her deep love of performing for her fans. Every pop star has to confess this, but Dion is painfully, heartbreakingly honest. Documentaries about pop stars are usually judged on their perceived authenticity: what moment the curtain rises on show business, what new message to fans that breaks through the curation of the old.

Perhaps Dion’s film feels fresher than most others, many of which deal primarily with the pressures of celebrity and publicity, because she is an older, different kind of celebrity. If she’s shy about fame, she doesn’t show it. She loves being an entertainer. Her voice is a gift she cherishes and loves to share, underscored by Taylor’s rapid patchwork of footage of her rehabilitation and her former safety onstage, sometimes undermining the poignancy of both. The choppy pacing gives the tribute the impression of an opaque veil covering the worst of stiff-person syndrome. That is, until the end, when the film’s most revealing and shocking scene about her condition is preserved: a nearly 10-minute full seizure tape, unvarnished. The episode is precipitated by what seems like the film’s salvation after a hard-fought victory in the recording booth.

It may sound cliché, but the only word that came to mind when the global superstar, groaning and groaning, agreed to the shoot while completely uncontrollable by convulsions, her safety was protected by a team of experts, her hands crippled with claws, her face frozen in a grimace and glistening with tears. Dion said she was training to perform again. The structure of the film does not yet allow such a happy ending, a triumph that does not overcome tragedy, to be realized. But there is little reason to doubt her, not to mention her tenacity or deep desire to make a sound again. A few hours after the convulsion, she said goodbye to her sports medicine doctor, playing a farewell song over the phone. Dion continued to sing, first modestly, then upright, then standing, clenching her fists and warming the invisible crowd.

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