‘Don’t cut down that scene’: ‘I Am: Celine Dion’ director

‘Don’t cut down that scene’: ‘I Am: Celine Dion’ director on capturing singer’s seizure


By Meredith Blake
Staff Writer 

“This is by far the biggest crowd I’ve had in a few years,” said Celine Dion onstage at Lincoln Center last week. She was making a rare appearance to introduce “I Am: Celine Dion,” a documentary chronicling her struggles with stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes muscle rigidity and has made it difficult for her to do the thing that has most defined her since childhood: sing.

“I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have my fans in my life,” Dion said, pausing to hold back tears as her son, René-Charles Angélil, who was waiting on the side of the stage, handed her a tissue. “Thank you to all of you from the bottom of my heart for being a part of my journey. This movie is my love letter to each of you. I hope to see you all again very soon.”

Director Irene Taylor was not exactly a Dion aficionado when she got a call a few years ago asking if she’d be open to making a film about the French Canadian singer who is known for her powerhouse vocals.

“Honestly, I thought it was not going to be a good fit. I don’t say that out of arrogance. I was like, “What would they want from me? This is not the kind of movie I make,” said Taylor in a video chat. Her previous documentaries include the deeply personal “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” about her deaf son and father. She was eventually won over by Dion and tried to approach her subject “with no peripheral vision,” Taylor said. “I really just tried to look at the person in front of me and what was happening.”

The documentary, now streaming on Prime Video, uses clips of performances and interviews from Dion’s 40-year career and traces the basics of her biography — beginning with her childhood in Quebec, where she was the youngest of 14 children, and then her crossover journey from French-language teen star to a chart topper with power ballads like “Because You Loved Me” and “My Heart Will Go On.”

Weaving archival material with contemporary footage of Dion opening up about her health struggles, “I Am: Celine Dion” shows the singer at her most vulnerable, both emotionally and physically.

Gone are the glitz and glamour associated with her onstage persona; Dion appears mostly makeup-free in casual dress, making goofy videos with her adolescent twins. She comes off as endearingly kooky — at one point she breaks out into the Kit Kat “Gimme a break” jingle — but also self-aware and very funny, like when she delivers an impromptu monologue about her love of shoes.

She is also candid about the extent of her health issues, revealing in the film that she had, by then, been experiencing symptoms for 17 years. What first manifested through occasional vocal strain grew steadily more debilitating, forcing her to find ways to fake it on stage and cancel shows — something that she, a performer with a zealous work ethic and devotion to her fans, found nearly as painful as the physical condition itself.

Perhaps most unforgettably, the film captures Dion as she is stricken with an episode of her illness in the middle of a physical therapy session. While lying on a table, she suddenly freezes. And though she can barely make a sound, her wrenched face conveys the agony she’s experiencing. At the New York screening, audience members could be heard weeping throughout the scene.


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