The Céline Dion Documentary Is a Harrowing, Upsetting Watch

Amazon MGM Studios
Amazon MGM Studios

I never thought I’d cry about an apple tree. But I did when that apple tree was a metaphor for Céline Dion.

In the new documentary I Am: Celine Dion, premiering June 25 on Prime Video, Dion talks at length about her experience battling a rare neurological disorder that has prevented her from performing these last three years—keeping the singer from her fans and thus forcing her to question her worth. There’s one monologue in particular that reveals how her absence from the stage because of her painful symptoms has splintered into a guilt—even a shame—over not living up to what it means to be “Céline Dion.”

“I feel like—let’s say there’s an apple tree—I’m an apple tree," she says. “And people are in line and I give them apples. The best. And I shine them, and they all leave with a basket of apples.”

She then inserts her current condition into the metaphor: “And my branches are starting to fall sometimes, get crooked, and those branches are starting to produce a little less apples. But there’s still as many people in line. I don’t want them to wait in line if I don’t have apples for them.”

Her voice catches as she prepares to deliver the next part. She goes silent as her eyes well with tears, as she relays what a fan told her, something that changed her attitude about surviving her disease, performing, and her relationship with all those who adore her. “We’re not here for the apples,” the fan said. “We’re here for the tree.”

Documentaries about musicians are a dime a dozen, and typically pointless—verging on reliably terrible. They’re truly the rotten apples underneath the tree: self-aggrandizing, masturbatory, and perfunctory, often starved of new revelations, even. I Am: Celine Dion is in an entirely different category from those wastes of time.

I’m one of the few journalists who got to see the documentary in advance of its streaming debut next week, at an emotional, yet joyful and celebratory premiere in New York. Dion herself appeared, delivering a 10-minute introduction to the film, during which she cried, I cried, everyone around me cried—and we all clapped and cheered at the star’s triumph. “Thanks to you, my friends. Your presence in my journey has been a gift beyond measure,” she said. “Your never-ending love and support over all these years have delivered me to this moment.”

The film reveals what it took to get to that moment.

Céline Dion’s Tear-Filled Return to the Stage: We Were There

I Am: Celine Dion is intimate, almost jarringly so. The film, directed by Irene Taylor, follows Dion around her home, into her bedroom, into her kids’ bedrooms, to doctor appointments, to physical therapy sessions, and to recording studios where she attempts to find the voice she’s lost. These excursions are interjected with confessionals from Dion, who is the only “talking head” who features in the film. They’re done in extreme close-up, often with Dion wearing no makeup, her hair frizzing from a top bun, and unbothered as tears stream down her cheek. (Norma Desmond would never.)

She’s grieving. She admits the dark truths about fighting a disease and it tearing her from the spotlight—like a vaudeville hook, would there be anything remotely humorous about Dion’s health situation. Of course, if you’ve ever seen a Céline Dion concert or watched any of her interviews, you know how endearingly kooky she is. Her goofy, hilarious storytelling permeates the film’s—and her—tragedy and trauma.

Dion announced that she was diagnosed with Stiff person syndrome in December 2022. The rare autoimmune neurological disorder causes painful muscle stiffness and crippling spasms, which have been so intense that they broke Dion’s ribs and have made it so that, at times, she was unable to walk. It also, as she demonstrates in the film, constricts her throat and vocal cords, which in essence made it so she could no longer sing her iconic, vocally virtuoso ballads.

However harrowing that is to read, the horrific nature of the debilitating disease is brought to stunning clarity by hearing Dion discuss in great detail how it’s affected her body and, as such, her career. But nothing can prepare you for a sequence in which Dion goes into a full-body spasm, unable to move any part of her body except for two agonizingly contorted fingers. She looks as if she’s in rigor mortis, unable to speak or blink as her therapists tend to her.

It’s all the more devastating to witness because of what caused the episode: singing.

I Am: Celine Dion is remarkable as it isn’t self-pitying or defeatist—nor is Dion. It is hopeful. Dion sings throughout the film, little trills here and there, like reflexes. Sometimes she’s demonstrating how SPS constricts her voice. Sometimes she’s recounting a favorite song, and does a quiet, lilting version of her former belt. Still, the music in Dion’s life remains vivacious, counteracting the depression behind losing her voice.

Prior to her spasm, she returned to the recording studio. She’s hard on herself, asking for take after take when she’s unable to hit the notes and runs the way she wants to. But she finds a groove, even if it’s a softer tone than what we’re used to, almost like that of Billie Eilish. It sounds gorgeous. She’s ecstatic.

One of the triggers of a SPS episode is being overstimulated. Her joy over being able to sing again is what sent her into so much pain later that evening.

But what’s telling about Céline Dion is that, even after the distress of that health crisis, she immediately starts singing again.

“I miss it so much,” she says near the end of the film, on the brink of sobbing. “The people, I miss them. If I can’t walk, I’ll crawl. And I won’t stop. I won’t stop.” After watching I Am: Celine Dion, I have no doubt about that.

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