‘I Am: Celine Dion’ Review: An Icon Faces Her Biggest Battle

Most contemporary music documentaries follow a pretty tight formula, offering viewers otherwise-unattainable, front-row seats both onstage and off. The sight of an icon experiencing spontaneous human emotions — elation, heartbreak, insecurity — is so unexpected, it leaves fans feeling as though they finally understand the person behind the persona.

Prime Video’s “I Am: Celine Dion” reverses this formula to some degree, out of tragic necessity. Céline Dion announced two years ago that she’d been struck by a very rare neurological disease called stiff-person syndrome, which has made it all but impossible for her to continue performing. So what’s seen, mostly, is Dion talking. And what she talks about, more than anything, is performing.

For this legendary singer, the persona is the person. “My voice was the conductor of my life,” Dion observes at one point, noting at another that “all I know is singing.” Though director Irene Taylor (“Beware the Slenderman”) initially intended to record her Las Vegas residency and subsequent tour, she quickly pivoted once both had to be cancelled. Now the film is partially about the loss of Dion’s instrument, as she appropriately calls her three-octave, mezzo-soprano voice, and partially about her refusal to accept this fate without a fight.

The result is a tribute both to Dion’s resiliency and her talent, making it ideal for fans. Taylor does include satisfyingly long clips of previous shows, and even those who never paid much attention will understand instantly how she sold 250 million albums and sold out concerts night after night. Her literal-minded nature — unabashedly earnest, openly sentimental — allows her to commune with her audience fully.

Since her disease has left her unable to perform as she once did, the documentary is now her stage. And she connects with her new audience in the exact same way, speaking in emotional aphorisms (“If you want to go far, go together”) and analogies (she is an apple tree, and her songs were once perfect, polished fruit). The project dives deep into her abilities, her passion and the career she wants back as badly as her fans do.

What’s missing, however, is anything outside the realm of that career. Almost nothing is heard about her relationship with late manager René Angélil, who discovered her at age 12, married her at age 26 and left her heartbroken when he died eight years ago. Similarly, almost no one outside of her professional circle is seen, leaving the impression that she still lives the unusually isolated and focused existence of a workaholic superstar. In fact, Dion lights up when she shows off her enormous warehouse where all her costumes remain. And she tears up when she thinks about what she’s lost, while wondering if she can possibly gain it back.

While her twin boys are on camera, briefly, at their spare but elegant Las Vegas mansion, even then, Dion explains to them that “though I’ve traveled the world, I didn’t really see anything … you call that ‘the price to pay.’”

Although many might consider that an awfully high cost, her audience doesn’t share her gift. She is the music, and the music is her. So who is Dion today? Someone fighting to return to where she once was, or — since her body has cruelly blocked the path — someone learning how close she can still get. She tests her voice constantly, exercising it at every opportunity even when she knows she won’t come near the notes that once awed millions.

Although this single-minded existence will fascinate and inspire devotees, anyone new to the details of her life is likely to be left wanting more. Even so, all will be moved by the honest approach Dion and Taylor take towards her illness, including a wrenching central scene in which she has a terrifying seizure. Just a few minutes after it ends, before there’s even a chance to recover from the shock, she’s already comforting herself and her team with a song.

“I Am: Celine Dion” is available to stream on Prime Video starting June 25 after premiering in New York last week.

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