Without leaving a dry eye in the house, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” premiered Tuesday at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood to an audience of friends, fans and family of the country music and television legend.
The documentary follows Campbell, who announced his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and impending retirement from performing in 2011, his wife, Kim, and his children, many of whom play in his band, as they embark on a farewell tour. The film is both an exploration of the progressive effects of the disease on the affected and their family as well as a showcase of Campbell’s seemingly undefeatable talent and genial personality, and director James Keach, who produced Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” said he was most pleased with the tremendous amount of humor audiences find in the film.
“I’ve seen it many times and my favorite thing is the laughter,” Keach said. “There’s more big laughs in this film than most big comedies. That balance with the drama of what’s going on, it’s very gratifying.”
Jane Seymour, who executive produced and helped finance the film, echoed the sentiment, adding that Campbell’s musical ability, even in spite of his deteriorating mental condition, prompts amazing responses from audiences.
“Every screening we’ve been at, there’s more laughter than there is crying,” she said. “But there is very profound crying, too. In fact, people also applaud in every screening when he plays the guitar. It’s almost like they’re watching it live and they want him to know how well he just did. It’s astounding.”
Producer Trevor Albert said he and Keach were reluctant to take on the project when first offered the opportunity because of what they assumed would be the inevitably dour nature of documenting Alzheimer’s, but Campbell won them over.
“We (thought) it sounded too depressing, so we basically (said no) for about six months,” Albert said. “Eventually … we went and met Glen and Kim, as soon as we walked in the room with Glen, we met the guy you (see) in the movie, this warm, joyful guy, full of life and sense of humor. And he picked up the guitar and started playing incredible guitar, and we thought maybe there’s something here.”
Realizing then that their assumptions of what a movie about an Alzheimer’s patient would look like might be very wrong, Keach and Albert signed on to film five weeks of Campbell’s shows, which quickly turned into 151 shows and two and a half years. Even as his mind began to progressively fail him more and more, Campbell continued to understand and love his time in front of the camera, said Keach.
“He loved it, he loved us being there. He’d ask where we were,” he said. “He’s a guy who spent most of his life in front of a camera, so he liked it, and he liked us. And he knew what he was doing was important, and he wanted it to be done.”
Interspersed with the concert footage are clips of interviews with prominent musicians and political figures including Bill Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, U2’s the Edge, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley. Campbell’s musical legacy and impact on these artists goes beyond his solo career, as he was once one of the most sought-after session musicians in the industry, working with artists including the Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole as a part of the legendary Wrecking Crew of studio musicians in the 1960s.
Equally impressive as the long list and wide variety of musicians all professing their devotion to Campbell’s craft is the number of those artists who also share their own heartbreaking stories of dealing with Alzheimer’s in their families. Albert said he was touched and surprised by the outpouring of perspectives.
“We actually solicited some people and then when the word got out what we were doing, people started calling us and saying, ‘I’m a huge fan of Glen Campbell, I’d like to also join in and talk about how he affected me,’” Albert said. “The by-product of that was, and we didn’t intentionally do this, two-thirds of the (musicians) we interviewed had had family members who were affected by Alzheimer’s. We didn’t put out the word that we were looking for musicians who were affected, it just happened.”
Albert said in screenings he and Keach have made a habit of taking a straw poll of the audience to see how many have been affected by Alzheimer’s, and without fail, two-thirds of the audience responds. For a disease so prevalent and devastating, Keach said the joy and well-earned human emotion in the film have drawn a spectacular response from the Alzheimer’s community.
“(Alzheimer’s activists) have said it’s taken us 20 years to create something that put a face on this thing, and people will feel emotionally connected to it,” Keach said. “You did it in an hour and a half, but it’s taken us 20 years.”
Produced by PCH Films, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” opens in select California theaters Friday before expanding limitedly across the country in weeks to come.
(Pictured: Director James Keach, Kim Campbell, Cal Campbell, Ashley Campbell and producer Trevor Albert at the Los Angeles premiere of “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”)