Though I didn’t grow up listening to Glen Campbell, I did find my way to his music. And in a short time, Glen, a seemingly larger-than-life figure with talent in abundance, a humble spirit, and a golden voice, quickly took up residence in my heart. In 2008 when Meet Glen Campbell released, the then 72-year-old singer was in the midst of a career resurgence. Though truthfully, with a recording career spanning half a century, Campbell had never entirely disappeared from the music scene. That’s why it was so difficult for me, as a new fan having only recently discovered this treasure of a music legend, when the Campbells publicly announced Glen’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.
I jumped at the chance to be part of an exclusive viewing of this film documenting Glen’s Alzheimer’s journey and final farewell tour. With a career that includes music, movies, and television, Glen is a beloved figure to many. Though not without his faults, Campbell maintained a reputation for being an honest, humble man of faith — a regular country boy. His unassuming attitude helped make his talented guitar work and vocal abilities appear deceptively simple. As Bruce Springsteen remarks in the film, Campbell is “simple on the surface” but contains a “world of emotion underneath.”
What I didn’t bargain for when accepting the offer to preview this documentary was how much it would affect me. Gut-wrenching. Emotional. Heartbreaking. Human. Real. And yet those words fall short of describing the impact of this movie. I’ll Be Me must be experienced first-hand to fully understand. That said, let me share a few details alongside my thoughts and reactions.
The film opens with home-movie footage of Campbell. But what feels warm and fuzzy soon turns bone-chillingly sad when you witness Campbell looking at his own youthful image on the screen and asking his wife, “Who’s that?” As the scene progresses, you realize that Glen and his wife are viewing the film together, and Glen’s looking to Kim for help identifying each person. And in that instant, your eyes are opened to the stark reality of this terrible disease.
The documentary takes the viewer from the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, through medical tests and consultations with doctors, to rehearsal and tour footage, and behind-the-scenes moments of life at home and on the road. You’ll see special events like Campbell’s 2012 Grammy performance where he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Campbell family’s trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with Congress about the need to raise awareness and support for federal funding for Alzheimer’s research.
What the film reveals is a sweet, kind, likeable man who is enduring with dignity a disease that will slowly rob him of his identity and his life. Goofy is a word that readily comes to mind when you see Glen doing his Donald Duck voice or cracking jokes and making fun of himself. He keeps a positive mindset as he weathers his own personal storm, summing up his philosophy as follows: “I have cried and I have laughed. Laughing is a hell of a lot better.”
Glen Campbell and his family (three of his children toured with him) faced his battle so bravely and so well that what began as a five-week tour turned into a 151-show odyssey lasting more than two-and-a-half years! All this because Glen, though unable to take four words given to him by a doctor and repeat them 30 seconds later, was, with the help of teleprompters, maintaining connection with his melodies and his music. Working was stimulating his mind and slowing the degenerative process. And though you’ll see him struggle with rehearsals at the beginning of the tour, for the most part, once placed before a live audience, Campbell is almost magically transformed and is able to focus, perform, and entertain. He still has lucid moments, too: “I got through it!” he says immediately after his performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno — a feat his own team wasn’t sure he’d be able to manage.
The best of the tour footage shows a man who at 74 years old appears to still be functioning at his prime during moments like guitar solos that can’t be supported by a teleprompter or any other aid. These bright spots at once make perfectly clear both Campbell’s immense gifts and the enormity of what Alzheimer’s will take from him, and, ultimately, from the world. The end of the tour footage shows a different man. At 76, he is visibly no longer winning the fight against the loss of his memories. Offstage, he is wrecked by communication struggles, confusion, moments of paranoia, and anger. But Campbell is ever the gentle spirit and still has moments of clarity when he apologizes for his behavior: “You’re really being nice to me … I’m really like a shithead.”
Further difficult moments include watching his daughter Ashley speak to Congress (as Glen looks on in silent tears) about how her dad will forget her name, and hearing her poignant song, Remembering, played as part of the movie’s soundtrack: “Daddy, don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering.” Equally difficult is listening as Kim relates her fears of watching her husband deteriorate as behaviors like licking his plate accompany his loss of fine motor skills. As Kim says, though, according to the Bible, “a merry heart is good medicine.” Clearly, she and the rest of the family have kept a positive perspective and maintain grateful hearts. Though she admits it became “a train wreck” at the end, Ashley says the farewell tour with her father was “the best time of my life.” Similarly, one of his sons remarks that he chose to appreciate the time on tour with his father and “cherish the moments” they spent together.
This is a family that knows what stands to be lost, yet steadfastly holds on to each moment they can along the road to goodbye. This is a man who is looking into his future and, as he did about the Lifetime Achievement Award, declaring, “I ain’t done yet.” And it’s a film that looks unflinchingly into the eyes of Alzheimer’s. While the family and the filmmakers never shy away from moments that might be construed as shameful or embarrassing, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me allows its subject to maintain his dignity throughout. I’m inclined to agree with President Clinton — Glen’s work to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s may leave a more enduring legacy than even his storied music career.
— Dawn Teresa