‘I Am: Celine Dion’ Review: The Canadian Diva Has Never Seemed Stronger Than She Does in Prime’s Revealing Doc

Just who is Celine Dion? You don’t become a star of her caliber without allowing the public a certain level of access to your life. In Dion’s case, that has meant sharing her roots (as the youngest of 14 kids in a poor Canadian family), her loves (most notably, the soulmate-level romance with her producer and manager, René Angélil) and her losses (coping with her husband’s passing) in countless interviews and profiles.

In “I Am: Celine Dion,” director Irene Taylor assumes her fans know all of that, dedicating no more than five minutes of her intimate feature-length documentary to such details. This isn’t your standard VH1 “Behind the Music” special. There are no talking heads (besides Celine’s), no tawdry gossip. Instead, “I Am” depicts the side of Dion the Canadian diva doesn’t typically show: at home, sans makeup, surrounded by her kids and close-knit staff. In December 2022, the singer divulged that she was living with Stiff Person Syndrome — a rare condition most people had never heard of before, so uncommon it affects just one or two people per million.

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Ever since she was discovered at age 12, it’s been clear that Dion was exceptional, but there could hardly be a more distressing way to be different. An expert-confounding neurological disorder, SPS starts with muscle spasms and escalates over time to crippling full-body attacks. In Dion’s case, the diagnosis made her concert tour impossible and threatened to end her singing career entirely. That’s pretty much the worst possible outcome for someone born with Celine’s gift — and the starting point for Taylor’s moving portrait.

“My dream is to be an international star and to be able to sing all my life,” a humble-confident Dion tells the camera in a taped early interview. What contemporary young TikToker doesn’t ardently share that same goal? And yet, it’s heartbreaking to hear, now that Celine has achieved greater success than that awkward, slightly horsey-looking teen could have possibly imagined, only to find it wrenched away by such an unfair affliction — one that deprives her of the ability to sing, every bit as cruel as Beethoven’s hearing loss.

Like all things Celine Dion, “I Am” feels intensely personal and sincere, but also managed to within an inch of its life. That doesn’t mean Dion failed to give Taylor full creative control, but there’s a sense the filmmaker didn’t want to include anything her subject wouldn’t approve of either. Surely, it was difficult enough for Dion to let her fans see the impact of SPS on her life and her voice.

A natural entertainer (and a good-humored ham), Celine can hardly hold a conversation without bursting into song, which means it’s not just her amphitheater-filling public persona that’s impacted by her condition. For more than two years, she’s been deprived of that outlet, while her fans have been deprived of their power-goddess, left only with an obscure-sounding diagnosis, after a series of dishonest excuses — from technical difficulties to throat and sinus infections — that now seem reasonable.

Taylor presents career-spanning montages, as well as extended sequences from epic individual shows, that demonstrate how Dion gave audiences more of herself than was reasonable with each soul-resonating performance, punctuated as they were with fist-pumping, chest-thumping flourishes. So corny yet so earnest, her choreography read as elegant and angular, which made the “stiff person” revelation uniquely upsetting. For those who knew nothing of the disorder (which was most of us), had we been missing something that had been hidden in plain sight?

Obviously, it was Dion’s voice the world loved most: a five-octave-spanning mezzo-soprano packed into a tall and impossible slender frame, belting straight from her heart. Dion already had nine French-language albums to her name when Disney tapped her to record the “Beauty and the Beast” duet. “Titanic” put her over the top, leading to her Las Vegas residency. On stage, Dion seemed to be singing at once to the entire arena and each and every person individually. “Because You Loved Me” serves as both a tribute to René and a thank-you to her fans.

“I Am” features fewer of Dion’s songs than you might expect, finding composer (and cellist) Redi Hasa’s more meditative score a better fit than its subject’s lyric ballads for the tone Taylor’s aiming for — although a few, like “All by Myself,” are highly effective coming from the now-widowed chanteuse. Meanwhile, Hasa’s Max Richter-indebted string music lends a reflective vibe to the entire film, which unfolds slowly, at much the same pace Dion tends to speak. She’s a showwoman, after all, well-practiced in priming an audience. Still, we believe her when she says the line that explains the film’s title: “The person I am today… I didn’t invent myself. I didn’t create myself. I am.”

How candid is any of what Taylor captures? There are moments at home (her tastefully extravagant Vegas mansion) that are clearly unrehearsed — like anytime Celine interacts with her twin teenage sons. But Taylor shows how her life is organized: a warehouse full of her shoes, gowns and souvenirs; an obsessively neat sock drawer; a desk where Sharpie markers appear obsessively arranged. After a touching scene in which she and the twins record a get-well message for a sick team member, Celine circles back to vacuum the couch. But her humor also comes through loud and clear, both in private and on screen (as in clips with Jimmy Fallon, James Corden and Deadpool).

The word “diva” — which certainly applies to Dion — often implies self-centered, even temperamental star behavior, though those aspects couldn’t be farther from the personality Taylor captures. French actor-director Valérie Lemercier’s campy, respectfully fictionalized “Aline” dug deeper into Dion’s psychology, and the impact of her relationship with René, whereas “I Am” plays more like last year’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.” That is to say, both docs focus on their subjects’ resilience, showing moments of vulnerability and pain that feel “courageous” in our disability-shy media culture.

Then again, times have changed since Dion first appeared on the scene. In the ’90s, celebrities were pressured to hide so many aspects of their personal lives, whereas today’s public responds to victimization and adversity — such admissions humanize our idols. The preternaturally talented Dion is nothing like us, but Taylor’s movie certainly makes her more relatable. Watching her struggle to record the title track from last year’s “Love Again” is both upsetting and inspirational, but nothing compared to the wrenching sight of Dion experiencing a SPS attack toward the end of the film.

In “Love Again,” the megastar played herself. But in “I Am,” she is Celine Dion. Turns out, she’s even stronger that we gave her credit for. But that’s not all. Relistening to her songs in the lead-up to the documentary, I picked up on something different from the many ways she found to express romantic love — something I would describe as gratitude. That same dimension of Celine Dion’s personality is reflected throughout the documentary, from the appreciation she shows her backup singers, band and staff to the way she addresses her fans.

Dion doesn’t seem to take anything for granted, and disability has made her all the more appreciative — to which I’m sure most audiences would agree: We are, too.

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