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I Am: Céline Dion Review – The Power of a Voice

An emotional powerhouse, as only Dion can deliver

10 mins read

I Am: Céline Dion
(USA, 102 min.)
Dir. Irene Taylor

 

“I think I did some great stuff,” Céline Dion tells director Irene Taylor with a tearful laugh. Her candid remark is an understatement to say the least. The Quebecois chanteuse and music icon lays herself bare in this documentary. Dion shares the cruelty that fate gave her when a diagnosis with the rare neurological disorder stiff-person syndrome (SPS) effectively halted her career.

Dion’s tears aren’t nostalgic odes for her past hits. They’re rather tearful laments for all the concerts and performances she may no longer get to do. I Am: Céline Dion spotlights Canada’s greatest voice as she uses her instrument unlike ever before. She sheds light on a one-in-a-million condition with devastating consequences.

I Am: Céline Dion offers an unexpectedly moving human portrait amid a sea of homogeneous music documentaries. But on the other hand, one really shouldn’t be surprised that the film contains such raw and uncontrived emotion. This is the story of Céline Dion, after all. Cynical audiences who don’t care for the unabashed emotion of Dion’s music might find the doc too weepy. Alternatively, Dion’s amassed fans worldwide by making them feel the power of a good song. On film, she’ll inevitably unite them with the power of a good cry.

Taylor generally keeps the story in the present tense with a fine slice of cinéma vérité as Dion deals with the impact of SPS on her career and daily life. There’s a great deal of access here and Dion provides the primary voice of the film. There are no other talking heads and the obligatory biographical elements appear sparingly as effective story beats. They highlight how far Dion has come since being the youngest of 14 children born to a poor-but-happy family in Charlemagne, Quebec, and taking the world by storm at age 13. (Stories about her mom make carrot pie, for example, tell of humble origins.)

Most effectively, the archival footage offers the instrument for which Dion’s famous: her voice. Cutting together a dazzling array of concert performances, I Am offers some of the pop bangers that make Dion the “Queen of the Power Ballad,” with highlights including “All By Myself” and the Oscar winning phenomenon “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.

Taylor, along with film editors Christian Jensen and Canuck Richard Comeau, show the range and power of Dion’s voice across the years. The attention here is on Dion’s energetic presence on the stage and the power she commands from behind the microphone. She loves performing, which makes the fact that symptoms of stiff-person syndrome are triggered by elements like loud music, which is especially tragic for a singer with many years still ahead of her.

Dion does sing in the present-day scenes of the film. She bravely opens her mouth and emits hoarse, raspy vocals. The sound resembles not Céline Dion, but rather Patty and Selma from The Simpson’s moonlighting as Maria Callas. And yet, Dion vows to take care of her body and regain her voice. Being such a natural performer also means that Dion bursts into song throughout conversations. At times, there are hint of that signature voice, so hope is not lost.

In her interviews with Taylor, Dion shares the challenges she faced managing her voice while on tour. She talks of “cheats,” like tapping the microphone when she flubbed a note or prompting audience participation when she knew she’d miss a high one. Throughout these emotionally-charged and make-up free interviews, Dion also illuminates the complications of stiff-person syndrome in layman’s terms. She explains how she can take a breath and fill her lungs to belt out a note, but the muscles around her lungs contract and work against her. Similarly, rehearsals and performances prove exhausting and she’s prone to painful spasms, even seizures, when she pushes herself—and she always pushed herself in service of the audience.

Late in the film, the interview and behind-the-scenes format blend with the production of Dion’s emotional message to fans in December 2022 when she shared her diagnosis with fans after cancelling her highly anticipated Las Vegas residency a year before. It’s therefore somewhat clear with the all-angles coverage of Dion’s confessional that the access is extraordinary, if managed.

The film also goes to great lengths to humanise Dion with shots of her vacuuming her kids’ mess or taking Taylor on a tour of her warehouse of keepsakes. She stores her children’s old toys alongside some haute couture she wore on the runway, and a gaggle of shoes of all sizes. These humorous elements, ironically, actually play among the few self-serving elements of the film. It’s as if there’s a need to justify having a successful diva the subject of the documentary.

More humanising, actually, are the genuine offhand comments that Taylor captures. For example, Dion expresses her adoration for a necklace gifted to her by her late husband and manager René Angélil. She fondles it while sharing that it used to belong to Maria Callas, one of her idols. The frequent use of Callas’ voice on the soundtrack assumes new resonance. Similarly, a cutaway to Dion’s performance of “Ashes” in the Ryan Reynolds superhero spoof Deadpool 2 sees her insist how her dial only goes to 11. The bit illustrates how, unlike other divas, Dion could not only take a joke but be a part of it. Put another way, Dion might be a multi-millionaire who lives in a lavish mansion with a butler, but the vérité footage candidly illustrates that she hasn’t lost touch of her humble roots.

In the fashion of Steve James’ Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, which followed the film critic during his final days with cancer, or David Guggenheim’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which chronicled the Canadian actor’s twist of fate following a Parkinson’s diagnosis, I Am offers a character-driven portrait of what it means to live with a life-changing condition. If anything, the film proves especially emotional for one who grew up listening to Dion’s music. One sees firsthand how her powerful voice was ripped from her and how SPS cruelly overtakes the body of a great performer.

Inevitability, though, a bad day for Dion means a “good” day for the production. Dion has two especially challenging days. These scenes crystallize the connection of her voice and the complications of SPS. One days sees Dion record the title track for the movie Love Again. It’s the first real test of her voice and her recovery. She does take after take after take. Notes that should be easy to hit find themselves beyond reach. She struggles with fits and starts. But she and her team recognize the voice emerging through the cracks. She sings until she finally records a track like the Céline everyone loves.

Shortly after the mix of exhaustion and euphoria, however, SPS takes its hold of Dion’s body. It works its way from a spasm in her toes to an intense full-body seizure within moments. The camera holds on Dion’s body as she seizes and moans while her physician and driver assist her. It’s excruciatingly painful to watch, so living it must be another form of hell. But she keeps on going, determined to rise from the ashes like her friend Deadpool. In true Céline Dion fashion, I Am will move even the most cynical person to tears.

I Am: Céline Dion opens June 18 at TIFF Lightbox and streams on Prime Video beginning June 25.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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