Celine Dion documentary

Unflinching documentary I Am: Celine Dion captures what we love about Quebec’s superstar

3.5 out of 5 stars

My first instinct in writing about the new documentary I Am: Celine Dion was to imagine how a “casual” Celine fan might feel about the film. Then, rewatching the film’s opening moments, archival footage of Celine Dion on various stages across the world, as a young woman, doing interviews in broken English, it seemed impossible to imagine (at least in Quebec) someone with a “casual” opinion or experience with her music and persona. That sequence underlined not only her extraordinary presence, but her infectious joie-de-vivre. As the film becomes more contemporary, as Celine Dion sits for the first time, her twin sons interview her. She looks so familiar… like a loved one, an aunt or a cousin. 

Celebrity documentaries made with the participation of their stars are often limited by the ego and vulnerability of the subject. Many stars, or at least their team, maintain an ironic distance while portending intimacy. Perhaps because of the way Celine Dion is — such an open book, so unfiltered, so gentle — I Am: Celine Dion manages to be far more open than most of the films of its sort. The filmmakers were quickly able to build a rapport with her, and in understanding her work, similarly structured a film around voices; not just Celine’s, but the world’s. 

While the documentary embraces many of the slick Apple tones common in these types of films (a kind of measured beigeness) it also is very clever with how it uses sound. Scenes are structured musically, information conveyed through the voices of media from around the world. It embraces the kind of spontaneity that Celine Dion herself brings to interviews, where she’s capable of breaking into song. Dion’s voice has always told a story, not just through the incredible power of her songs but also her Québécoise-ness. In English or French, she’s kept that flavour of where she’s come from, sounding as if she’s always kept her home in her heart.

The documentary I Am: Celine Dion is streaming now on Prime Video

Far from merely a celebration, though, much of the film examines Celine Dion’s experience with Stiff-Person Syndrome. Isolated and medicated day in and day out, we see a woman enduring. “I miss people,” she says in tears, one year after she was forced to cancel her Vegas residency. We reach the heart of her stardom in these moments, a superstar who always seemed so human, so fallible, so full of love. A recurring theme in her life in contemporary as well as archival interviews is this idea that she has long struggled to live in the real world. Having children and now unable to perform, there’s a sense that, once more, she’s forced to break into reality — an uncomfortable space for her. 

One senses that her desire to invite people to join her on this journey was not just to educate the public about SPS, but as a grand gesture of compassion towards people suffering from any level of chronic illness. Loneliness becomes a foregrounding experience, but so is Dion’s sense of identity. As she explains, “my voice was the conductor of my life,” and losing that rendered her without direction and forced her to reckon with those aspects of herself that she was avoiding or running from. It’s clear that Celine Dion viewed her voice as her power, and when she was suddenly robbed of it, a deep sadness set in. Despite this, she still seems to keep her sense of humour and warmth. 

I Am: Celine Dion documentary

I Am: Celine Dion and it is not without its flaws. It never fully escapes the aesthetics or stylings of the celebrity documentary portrait. Some of the background music is cloying, on the nose, directing the audience’s emotional reactions a little too keenly. There’s something predictable in its approach and it ventures into uncomfortable territory, on occasion, in its choice to depict some of Celine’s more harrowing health issues. Then again, with these types of films, the subject often has the ability to sign off on it; one can imagine her desire to share all aspects of herself, to be unflinching in her honesty, even when it’s difficult to bear. 

If there is such a thing as a casual fan of Celine Dion, improbably, I Am Celine might be able to convert them. It’s a film that captures Celine’s overwhelming generosity as a performer. Even as she navigates health issues, she feels larger than life. The movie not only captures the enormity of her talent, but also the depth of her humanity. One fair warning though: this movie is a tearjerker, and you’re stronger than me if you can make it through without bawling. ■

The documentary I Am: Celine Dion was directed by Irene Taylor

I Am: Celine Dion is now streaming on Prime Video. 

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