James Keach’s intimate documentary follows the legendary singer on a tour just as he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, forgetting the lyrics but never forgetting how to play
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
Featuring: Glen Campbell, Kim Campbell
Directed by: James Keach
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
In 2011, country music legend Glen Campbell went on what would turn out to be a farewell tour. Playing to sold-out houses across America, he was promoting a new album and singing some of the well-known hits — Wichita Lineman, Rhinestone Cowboy, Galveston — that made him famous.
At the same time, Campbell had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which brought a different kind of tension, and of poignancy, to his concerts. He couldn’t remember the lyrics of his songs (he relied on a Teleprompter). He forgot the names of his band members, three of whom were his children.
But he could still play his guitar — Campbell made his early living as a studio musician for such talents as Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys — and his voice maintained its rich, plaintive tone. His memory was fading, but his musicianship somehow magically survived.
I’ll Be Me, a documentary about Campbell, is an intimate portrait of both the tour and of a lively, engaging musical star who is slowly becoming lost in a fog of forgetfulness. Directed by James Keach (son of actor Stacey), it is both moving and enlightening, even if it does occasionally take on the tone of an educational video.
It begins at the Mayo clinic, where Campbell and his fourth wife Kim — for all his open-faced country innocence, Campbell seems to have had a complicated love life — are getting the bad news from a doctor. Campbell doesn’t know what year it is, or what month, or even what season. He doesn’t know the name of the first American president. He says these are things he has dropped from his memory because he doesn’t need them, but his medical tests show a darker truth.
Still, Campbell, who just turned 79, could still put on a show, and after a sort of test run on the Jay Leno show, he hit the road, stumbling occasionally but mostly showing his dazzling musicianship had not been affected. Keach talks to many celebrities — including Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Webb, Brad, Vince Gill, The Edge, Bill Clinton, and Steve Martin — about Campbell’s talents (Martin was a writer for his TV show in the 1960s). He also uses home movies that remind us of Campbell’s glory days, and also stand as a sort of metaphor for slow loss of memory. Like the flickering old films, Campbell is fading into darkness.
The movie shows us some of this as well: bits of a concert at which Campbell gets upset over the sound system, scenes at home where he takes on the characteristic paranoia of Alzheimer’s patients and begins accusing his best friend of stealing his golf clubs, his stubborn anger over small things. At one stage, Campbell sticks a knife in his mouth to remove an obstruction in his teeth, and angrily refuses to see a dentist.
Less successful is a sequence in which Glen and the devoted Kim visit Washington and talk to members of Congress about funding for Alzheimer’s research: it makes I’ll Be Me look more like a lobbying effort, however worthy. But by the end, you find yourself seduced all over again by Campbell’s memorable songs and touched by the lingering shots of his half-smile of confusion. He’s still there, and still playing. But where has he gone?
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