In 2011, while country crooner and legendary guitarist Glen Campbell prepared to tour in support of his latest album, his family revealed that he had received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Remarkably, the Campbells not only proceeded with a “Goodbye Tour,” but also allowed filmmaker James Keach to document the progression of Glen’s illness and its effect on their lives and work. “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me” blends intimate and unflinching medical details, poignant performance footage and a survey of its subject’s place in musical history through well-chosen archival footage and interviews with other iconic performers. A limited release through U.S. distributor Area23a begins Oct. 24 and will expand in the weeks to come, while festival kudos at Nashville and Vancouver could spell more awards attention down the road.
Just as the “Goodbye Tour” repped the last chance for Campbell’s multitudes of fans to see him live, this observational docu offers a final opportunity to witness the singer in lucid moments, with his artistry movingly intact. He was moved into a specialized Alzheimer’s treatment facility in March 2014, three years after filming began in 2011. At that time, Campbell was 75 years old and had been married for nearly 30 years to his fourth wife, Kim, a bedrock of strength 23 years his junior. The couple has three children, talented musicians Cal, Shannon and Ashley, all of whom are in his backup band.
Kim’s commentary about what’s going on (sometimes directly to the camera) functions in lieu of narration. In one early scene, Glen and Kim watch documentary footage chronicling his salad days and superlative achievements — among them five Grammys; induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame; his own TV series, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour”; and a co-starring role in the original “True Grit.” When Kim has to tell Glen who’s who, the moment not only epitomizes the sad losses of an Alzheimer’s sufferer and the patience required of a caregiver, but also cleverly provides background about the musician’s life and career.
As members of their medical team explain to Glen and Kim, Alzheimer’s is a progressive type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior as the hippocampus shrinks and atrophies. Yet the doctors can only marvel at the extraordinary wiring of Glen’s brain, which allows him to continue performing complicated guitar solos and sing with perfect pitch even while he suffers more typical symptoms.
Although Glen quickly becomes, in the words of Kim, “unrehearseable,” the family and band members decide to go on the road for as long as the good outweighs the bad. We see the strain this causes every member of the tour, not least Kim, but it’s is trumped by the palpable love that surges from the audience toward the stage. Even if Glen at times doesn’t appear to know where he is or what he’s doing, he feels the emotion and gains energy and focus.
Even as they go through the emotional and professional wringer, Campbell’s offspring don’t regret participating in the tour. Son Cal notes, “When he connects to something that gave him joy, it’s like he’s himself again.” Daughter Ashley, who performs a lively dueling guitar/banjo riff with her father onstage, also accompanies her parents to Capitol Hill and makes a touching appeal before a Congressional committee for more funding to fight the disease, which is growing exponentially. Director Keach also recruits a slew of top musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, the Edge, Chad Smith and Kathy Mattea, whose own lives have been touched by Alzheimer’s, to comment on Campbell’s courage.
As the tour extends over nearly two years to 151 concerts, we begin to observe its diminishing returns, particularly as Campbell moves into the later phases of the illness, characterized by frustration, anger and paranoia. But even as he suffers a complete meltdown onstage, the audience is with him and for him. A scene of Campbell’s final recording with members of his former crack session band, the Wrecking Crew — the song his “Not Gonna Miss You,” a ballad he wrote for Kim — heartbreakingly demonstrates the man’s profound understanding of the disease, something that does not always come across in the filmed footage.
Stylistically, “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me” is nothing special; indeed, the homevideo shots are mostly pedestrian. Yet the sheer joy, even magic, captured in the concert footage preserves the artist’s sublime musicianship and the ineffable relationship between performer and audience. In the end, his family’s willingness to document his decline, in the hope that it will draw more attention and resources to fighting the disease, burnishes and extends Campbell’s legacy in enduring fashion.