‘Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken’ Review: Rock Music and Drug Addiction Intersect in Moving Prison Docuseries

The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter battles the demons of guilt and rehabilitation alongside the incarcerated women of a Kansas correctional facility in this Paramount+ doc

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Melissa Etheridge in "Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken." (James Moes/Paramount+)

During an outdoor concert filled with an audience of prisoners at the Topeka Correctional Facility, rock singer Melissa Etheridge confidently informs the all-female crowd that “You are the only you,” before she hits them with a rendition of her 1993 single, “I’m the Only One.” Eerily reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s infamous prison tour during his musical career, Etheridge ushers in a modern concert experience for a willing throng of listeners that’s not too dissimilar to the rock legend. At the end of the day, it is about connection, a theme that emerges as Etheridge explains why she’s performing at the unique venue.

It’s evident in the first few minutes of “Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken” that this isn’t a typical concert documentary. A two-part docuseries that concentrates its energy on the pitfalls of drug addiction and the failed penal system revolving around rehabilitation, Etheridge speaks directly to the camera as she prepares for a monumental show at the aforementioned correctional facility. Beginning nine months before the concert, the “Come to My Window” legend explains her reasons for performing for prisoners, mainly due to her upbringing in Leavenworth, Kansas, a town famous for its own prison.

The only other landmark in Leavenworth? A guitar-shaped sign that greets visitors entering the town that reads, “The Hometown of Melissa Etheridge.”

But the underlying thread that connects Etheridge to the women housed in the Topeka Correctional Facility is the fact that she lost her son to a fentanyl overdose in 2020. Still dealing with the trauma of losing a child, the singer is determined to help those still struggling with addiction in any way she can. Collaborating with prison workers and five specific prisoners, Etheridge wants to give the incarcerated population the concert of a lifetime while vocalizing her support for changes to the system.

The courage and resilience of these women, who are striving to overcome their past and build a better future, is inspiration personified.

Interviews with prisoners about their experiences with drug addiction, and how they ended up in prison, highlight the earnest reasoning behind Melissa Etheridge’s intentions. Tugging at the heartstrings of an emotional journey that inspires Etheridge to draft a new song dedicated to the prisoners, the docuseries explores the fractured relationship between addiction and imprisonment. Discussions are presented of these women’s hopes and fears leading up to the debut of Etheridge’s new song, aptly referred to as “I’m Not Broken,” for most of the series.

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A still from “Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken.” (Paramount+)

The directing duo behind “Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken,” Brian Morrow and Amy Scott, are keen to keep viewers guessing as to how Etheridge’s new song will sound. The docuseries is interspersed with scenes directly from the concert while taking viewers back to when the songwriter developed the song in her Los Angeles home. She interviews five incarcerated women who ultimately inspired her to write a melody filled to the brim with transcendence and healing, for a population of prisoners who haven’t connected with a performer in quite some time.

For many of these women, Melissa Etheridge is their first concert experience. That becomes apparent as we learn their fears for the future and the hope a singer like Etheridge brings to their confined existence. The docuseries brings to light many of the challenges they face while giving Etheridge a platform to stun an eager congregation with her sultry sound.

It’s a powerful reminder of the transformative power of music, offering hope and solace in even the most challenging circumstances.

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Melissa Etheridge in “Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken.” (James Moes/Paramount+)

Boy, does she ever! There aren’t a lot of performers quite like Melissa Etheridge in this day and age, especially considering the hurdles she’s had to overcome to get to this moment in her 63 years. Much of that isn’t explored via this series. Rather, the focus is squarely placed on Etheridge’s guilt and revelations of her son’s death during the opioid crisis, and how it relates to the difficulties these incarcerated women go through within their own drug addictions.

“Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken” lifts up a population of women forgotten by society and strives to tell an inspiring story filled with overcoming loss and human connection through music with others experiencing trauma and grief. The series shines a light on what many consider a failed penal system, using Etheridge as the seductive voice of reason. Though many aspects of that system aren’t necessarily repaired through her desire to affect change, the documentary does a fantastic job of traversing prisoners’ experiences using empathy and understanding set to the tune of Etheridge’s vocal genius.

Before the credits start rolling, viewers and the in-person audience are rewarded with Etheridge’s newest song, dedicated and inspired by her conversations with the five incarcerated women. The emotional impact of Etheridge’s new song, inspired by the stories of these women, is truly moving and underscores the power of music to connect and heal. If you weren’t familiar with Melissa Etheridge’s work and political activism before, this series will make a fan out of you.

“Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken” premieres Tuesday, July 9, on Paramount+.

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