Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken’ on Paramount+, A Docuseries About The Rocker’s Healing Connection With Women In Prison

In the two-part docuseries I’m Not Broken, now streaming on Paramount+, Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Melissa Etheridge develops a bond with five residents of Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas, women who wrote her letters about their lives in anticipation of the concert Etheridge and her band performed at the prison. I’m Not Broken features footage of the live show. But it’s more than that, as Etheridge works through the loss of her son to opioid addiction and through song gives voice to the women’s experiences – their lives on the inside, but also the cycles of drug abuse and violence that brought them there, and the resilience that is possible. Directed by Brian Morrow and Amy Scott, I’m Not Broken premiered in June at the Tribeca Film & TV Festival.   

Opening Shot: Melissa Etheridge’s ensemble of black leather and matching black Les Paul guitar create a contrast against the barbed wire fencing and corrections officers that surround the stage. But in the front row it’s still a rock show, and the women there shout along with Etheridge’s 1993 hit “I’m the Only One.”  

The Gist: Etheridge and her band are performing for a few thousand of the residents at Topeka. But in the crowd we also see Cierra, Leigh, Kristi, Jessica, and Andrea, all incarcerated women who wrote letters to the singer in the months before the concert. They shared the intimate details of their lives, the choices they made that led eventually to Topeka, and it was cathartic. “In these letters, I finally let myself feel,” one woman describes in a cutaway interview. And I’m Not Broken follows Etheridge from her home in Los Angeles and through a few shots of life on the road to the prison itself, which is just about an hour from her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas.  

“It’s interesting to get the residents to write about their life, because they actually get to write about their life,” Etheridge says in Broken. “When you write about and examine your past, not in a guilty or shameful way, but just in an explaining way, like ‘this is how I got here,’ that is medicine, just doin’ that. So I’m really fascinated by the letters.” If Leavenworth sounds familiar, that’s because it’s home to a series of prisons. In the 1960s and 70s, Johnny Cash played concerts for the inmates there, and as an adolescent folk singer just starting out, so did Etheridge. That history inspired this new project, as she hopes to bring healing, community, and visibility to the residents at Topeka. 

She isn’t stopping at just a concert and a quick meet-and-greet. I’m Not Broken also follows Etheridge as she writes an original song inspired by the experiences of the women who wrote to her, experiences that often reveal tragic cycles of drug abuse and toxic relationships. The singer stresses that she can’t heal anyone. Not with one song or appearance. But to be heard, to be seen – those are redemptive forces in themselves. And Etheridge is floored by the love shown back to her when she shares the story of her son Beckett’s 2020 death from complications due to opioids. “The Shadow of a Black Crow,” from 2007, is a deeply personal song about her son that she does not normally play live. “But when I told them about Beckett” – in footage from the prison concert, all the residents hold hand hearts aloft – “I was destroyed.”    

Melissa Etheridge: I'm Not Broken
Photo: Paramount+

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? I’m Not Broken co-director Amy Scott also helmed Sheryl, about the life and career of Etheridge’s music contemporary Sheryl Crow. And Netflix has a mini-industry of shows that reveal life on the inside for women in prison systems, including Jailbirds and Girls Incarcerated.  

Our Take: I’m Not Broken is released in conjunction with a Melissa Etheridge live album recorded at the Topeka Correctional Facility, a further, very cool acknowledgment of this project’s link with classic Johnny Cash stuff like 1969’s Live at San Quentin. Etheridge’s album includes her dialogues with the incarcerated audience between each song, just as this docuseries presents the prison itself as a main character. It’s where the residents profiled live and work, but the facility also barrierizes their ability to communicate with and be seen by the outside world. That illumination is all over Broken, especially in the moments shared between Etheridge and the women who have written to her, but also in the cutaway interviews with Leigh, Kristi, Cierra, Andrea, and Jessica. We learn their names, we see their handwriting, and in their own words we hear how they interpret their own experiences. It’s very personal, and made more so by Etheridge’s own journey, as both a mom who lost her son and as a cancer survivor. 

“It serves no one to be devastated,” Etheridge says at one point. “You can’t get sick enough to make a sick person well.” But she also can’t claim this pain as some kind of badge. “Man, I’m walking this path, I’m doing the best I can.” it’s a message that emotionally resonates, with the prison residents profiled and with the viewing audience. But it’s amplified, too, because the live performances in I’m Not Broken ring with the brash vocal style and guitar-heavy approach that have been Melissa Etheridge’s calling cards since “Bring Me Some Water” burned up the airwaves in 1988.

Melissa Ehteridge wearing sunglasses and talking in Melissa Etheridge: I'm Not Broken
Photo: Paramount+

Sex and Skin: None.

Parting Shot: Etheridge has the rhythmic pulse of Cash’s work in mind as she strums an Ovation 12-string in her home studio and considers the phrases that stood out from the women’s letters and her conversations with them. She wants the song she’ll write to speak for them. “Something they can respond with, that they can ‘Whoo!’ at the end of it. It’s gonna be this great release, that’s all.” Etheridge laughs. “Now I just have to write it!”

Sleeper Star: Throughout I’m Not Broken, as Topeka residents read excerpts from their letters in voiceover, it’s a powerful, personal touch to the docuseries that further links them with the first-person lyrics Etheridge envisions.

Most Pilot-y Line: “I’ve learned you can’t save anyone,” Etheridge says in I’m not Broken. “I could not save my son. The best I can do is be an example. A light that holds these people up and says ‘You matter.’”

Our Call: STREAM IT. Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken is partly a rock concert, partly a statement of advocacy, and partly a healing journey for everyone involved, from the singer-songwriter herself to the incarcerated women she bonds with.

Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.

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