Glen Campbell's filmed final tour documents how Alzheimer's disease might take a man's mind, but it can't take his music.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
When I recently screened The Wrecking Crew, Iwas surprised to learn that Glen Campbell, a musician whom I had only known in the context of country music, had earned his early reputation (and paycheck) as a studio musician on a lot of great pop songs. Some of Campbell’s credits, as a member of that Wrecking Crew, include work on records by Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and as a member of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, to name a few. Among the other joys of that documentary, it was a treat to see and hear Campbell at the dawn of his career. It seems only fitting, then, for my understanding of the Rhinestone Cowboy’s career to be brought full circle through this film’s focus on his twilight.
In 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After going public with his illness, he went on the road to perform over 100 concerts for two reasons: for the promotion of his album, “Ghost on the Canvas,” and for something of a farewell tour. This documentary, from director James Keach, not only follows Campbell, his wife, and three of his children (who are also band members) on the tour, it follows his medical journey and offers insight into what some of the biggest names in music and the world think of the country music legend.
When the topic of a documentary is about the effect of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s sure to be devastating. Such is the case with Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. The film begins with Campbell and his fourth (and current) wife, Kim, watching home movies. As the images on their screen change, Campbell recognizes no one—not his past wives, not his own children, not even himself. It’s a heartbreaking open. Keach then rolls the opening credits over a highlight reel of Campbell’s life and career. This is key because it reminds the viewer of what a living legend (a term used without hyperbole) Campbell is, and what he stands to lose, at least in terms of memories.
From that point, the film becomes more a video diary than a documentary, recording Campbell’s life in real-time. This suits the subject matter well, as the story is incredibly intimate. Sure, there are appearances by luminaries from a wide spectrum of life (Keith Urban, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Martin, and President Bill Clinton, to name a few) who speak to what a figure of consequence Campbell was, but so much more of the film is filled with family and friends who offer both warm memories of Campbell and chilling insight into how this disease is so painful to watch.
The film doesn’t get lost in too much science, offering a quick course in Alzheimer’s, a disease that slowly erases memories and (eventually) cripples other mental functions. This lesson gives the film an organic sense of foreboding throughout its run as there is a clock ticking in Campbell’s mind. Keach never exploits this aspect, and he wisely spares most melodrama throughout the film, although the inclusion of daughter Ashley Campbell singing “Remembering,” with its oft-repeated line, “Daddy don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering,” is impactful and cuts straight through the heart.
As an Alzheimer’s patient, Campbell is a fascinating study. Even though he might not remember much from his past, he is mentally wily enough to play off (read: deny) his forgetfulness. When asked the name of the first president of the United States, Campbell can’t answer the question, but he dismisses it as something he simply doesn’t need to know so there’s no big deal in not knowing it. He does this time and again, and I was left to wonder if this behavior is normal for Alzheimer’s patients or if this was the showman in Campbell rising to the surface.
Speaking of showman, for all his struggles offstage with his disease, he could still play, pretty much to the end of the tour. He may have needed a teleprompter to help him remember some of the lyrics, but he never needed help with melodies, he never struggled hitting notes, and he could still make his gee-tar sing.
Having recently seen Campbell’s glorious early beginnings in The Wrecking Crew, it’s heartbreaking to watch this man’s humble demise slowly unfold on film. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a bittersweet companion to that other picture, and an illustration of how a celebrity can embrace humility in the name of raising awareness.