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

Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

On Monday night, over 1,000 of Céline Dion’s biggest fans—including me—gathered at Lincoln Center in New York City to all cry together. Perhaps the most emotional attendee at the event: Dion herself.

At the premiere of her new documentary, I Am: Céline Dion, which will be available to stream June 25 on Prime Video, the singer took the stage to a screaming standing ovation. Tears began flowing in the audience, and certainly down my cheeks, before Dion even began speaking, with Dion visibly moved by the response. The applause and cheering lasted a full minute before Dion was able to speak.

“This is by far the biggest crowd I’ve had in a few years,” she said. Someone in the crowd shouted in response, “We love you,” after which Dion got immediately choked up and said, “I missed that.”

“Thanks to you, my friends. Your presence in my journey has been a gift beyond measure,” she continued later in her speech. “Your never-ending love and support over all these years have delivered me to this moment.”

In December 2022, Dion announced she had been diagnosed with Stiff person syndrome (SPS), a rare autoimmune neurological disorder that she had been battling for, she reveals in the documentary, almost 17 years before only recently having answers about what was happening to her. Her symptoms have been debilitating: painful muscle stiffness and crippling spasms that made it so that, at times, she couldn’t walk; tragically, she could also no longer sing her indelible songs. The disease’s progression forced her to cancel her Las Vegas residency and world tour; her speech at the documentary premiere represented a rare public appearance.

The intimate, unflinching documentary reveals just how harrowing it has been for Dion to weather her disease. One scene in particular shows her experiencing a full-body spasm that rendered her unable to move, speak, or even blink; it’s shocking, illuminating footage that stunned the audience. I won’t soon forget the sight of paralyzed by pain, wordless. And just as heartbreaking were the scenes in which Dion, sobbing, explains how hard it’s been to reckon with her life and her happiness when she’s unable to sing and be on stage performing for her fans.

During her 10-minute speech, Dion acknowledged her neurologist, Dr. Amanda Piquet, and the film’s director, Irene Taylor, and thanked her family for their support. At one particularly endearing moment, her eldest son, René-Charles, brought her a tissue to wipe her tears with.

For Dion’s fans, witnessing her return to the stage in this way was a monumental moment. I couldn’t wait to be in the room to watch her make a triumphant comeback. The audience consisted of a select groups of journalists who had covered her career, people who had worked on her film, her fans, and many Broadway stars—including members of the original creative team and cast of Titanique, the musical comedy that reimagines Titanic with the character of “Céline Dion” belting her songs as the ship sinks.

There was a palpable giddiness and excitement in the theater before Dion introduced the film. Her songs played as the audience took their seats, which eventually became a sing-a-long, with the crowd clapping, dancing, and belting along to her triumphant hit “Alive.” The enthusiasm was infections.

Celine Dion Describes Horror of Singing With Stiff-Person Syndrome

And as for Dion herself, there is obvious curiosity about how she looked, especially given the traumatic nature of her disease and the toll it’s taken on her body. I can report that she looked, well, fabulous, wearing an elegant cream-colored gown, her hair a striking blonde. She had walked a red carpet before the screening, and was strong and commanding during the full 10 minutes of her speech.

“I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have my fans in my life,” she concluded, with, at this point, the entire room crying along with her. “This is my love letter to each of you. I hope to see you all again very, very soon.”

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