Although I’m about a year late to this bandwagon, maybe that can be overlooked if it brings more eyes to I’ll Be Me, the extraordinary documentary about Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
I’ve been a Glen Campbell fan for a long, long time–since childhood really, when his “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” set a new standard for television variety shows. He lost me a little bit around the time of “Southern Nights,” but by then his extraordinary collection of hits had a permanent place in my desert-island list.
But back to I’ll Be Me, James Keach’s tough and tender look at how Glen Campbell dealt with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We see Campbell and his wife Kim consulting with doctors who ask him memory-based questions that he cannot answer. When asked who was the first president, Campbell replies, “I don’t care about that.” As the disease progresses, Campbell tries to stay upbeat, but his frustrations boil over in anger a couple of times, and Keach puts us in the room as it happens.
If I’ll Be Me exists only to help audience understand Alzheimer’s disease, it would be enough, but it goes far beyond that to powerfully demonstrate how Glen Campbell’s musicianship interfaces with his disease. Shortly after his diagnosis, Campbell launched a massive farewell tour which serves as the backdrop for most of this film. As he struggles to remember the names of his family members, Glen Campbell can walk out on a stage and put on a great show. Although he needs a teleprompter to help with lyrics–those Jimmy Webb songs have a lot of words!–his tenor still soars. And the guitar-playing? Oh my gosh. Glen Campbell is one of the best guitarists in the history of pop and country music, and Alzheimer’s disease didn’t touch that, at least not during the scope of I’ll Be Me. His playing is incredible.
The film makes the point that the progression of Alzheimer’s begins by attacking memory. But Glen Campbell’s musicianship is so deeply embedded that it’s more than mere memory. As he takes the stage night after night, the sharpness of his performance belies the ways that the disease has ravaged other areas of his life. One of his doctors makes the case that continuing to play and perform music may actually slow the disease’s progression in other areas of his brain. Glen Campbell delivers flawless vocal and guitar performances throughout most of I’ll Be Me, but we also see him struggle on the last night of the tour.
Another important theme of I’ll Be Me is the importance of Glen Campbell’s family support. His wife Kim is patiently by his side at home and on tour. Some Campbell children form his stage band. His daughter Ashley Campbell is a dynamic performer in her own right and an articulate spokesperson for families dealing with Alzheimer’s when she addresses a Congressional committee on the subject.
A who’s who of popular music comment on Campbell’s legacy–Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, The Edge, Brad Paisley, and more–but just as significant are the insights of his family members, tour personnel, doctors, and a fellow native Arkansan named Bill Clinton.
Since the film’s release, news stories have surfaced about Glen Campbell’s current condition as he is cared for at home, currently in the sixth of seven stages of Alzheimer’s progression. Rather than morbidly focusing on what his fans all know is coming, I hope anyone interested in Glen Campbell, popular music, or Alzheimer’s disease will watch I’ll Be Me. It’s currently available on DVD, and it will debut on Netflix in October.