Austin Film Festival 2014
By Linc Leifeste | November 13, 2014
Director: James Keach
Proof that you never know where life will take you: One of the most poignant and eye-opening documentaries of 2014, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, is less about the man’s long, storied life in music than about his struggle with Alzheimer’s and his valiant effort to carry on a final tour while staring down the barrel of dementia. The film opens with a montage of vintage home video footage of Campbell through the years, giving the impression that what you are about to see is going to be a traditional biographical documentary, a retrospective on his life and career, before the camera pulls back to reveal Campbell and his wife sitting and watching the footage. Campbell is wearing a slightly puzzled look and it becomes apparent that he’s trying to put names to faces of his ex-wife, his children, even himself. As the film illustrates, we are each little more than a collection of our experiences and memories, and if we begin to lose those memories then we begin to lose ourselves.
Without delving deep into details, I’ll Be Me does a decent job of making the uninitiated at least mildly aware of the breadth and depth of Campbell’s career: respected studio musician (understatement), guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor, television personality, but this is all done in passing, mostly though a bit of archival footage and from interviews with celebrity talking heads (Bill Clinton, Steve Martin, Jimmy Webb, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Bruce Springsteen, U2’s Edge, Kathy Mattea, etc.). Instead, what the film focuses on is Campbell’s time spent in doctors’ office as he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s just after recording only his second album in a late career renaissance, his decision to publicly reveal his diagnosis, and the choice to go on one long farewell tour.
The tour is presented in depth, with footage from multiple performances, and the progression of Campbell’s disease becomes painfully apparent as you see an increase in his struggles to perform, in his increased mood swings and irritability, in his growing inability to remember the names of his children (three of whom play in his band) and his decreased ability to even communicate. While the tour starts with strong performances, that gradually begins to change as the tour progresses. Along the way we’re given inside access to doctor’s visits, down time with family and friends as well as monumental moments such as his performance at the Grammy’s, where he was presented with a lifetime achievement award, and his visit to Capitol Hill, where he made an appearance at Congressional hearings on Alzheimer’s.
If the decision to go on tour in the face of Alzheimer’s was brave, the decision to give director James Keach access to make this film was amazingly, jarringly bold. By doing so, Campbell puts a human face on this disease and makes Alzheimer’s incredibly, painfully, hard-to-watch real. You hear stories of his getting up in the middle night and peeing in the corner of his bedroom, you see him rage at the the imagined theft of his golf clubs by a longtime friend, you see him lash out at the people he loves most and as the tour reaches it’s painful end you hear stories of him wandering door to door in his hotel ringing doorbells thinking they’re elevator buttons while struggling to perform on stage. with even his guitar playing, the last part of his mental ability to fade, deteriorating before your eyes.
All of this, of course, leads to the question of was this tour, this documentary, the right thing to do? How much of a role is Campbell playing in all of this? How aware is he of what is going on? No doubt the family is left open to charges of exploitation but that’s something his wife addresses directly late in the film, saying that it’s something he wanted, it’s good for him and it’s also a gift to his longtime fans, who clearly love the opportunity to see their hero perform one more time. And there’s no doubt that this film is a powerful educational tool in the struggle to bring broader awareness of the destructive grip of the disease and the need for more spending on research. And if this film accomplishes that, it could very welll be his crowning achievement, yet one more to be added to the long list of reasons that Glen Campbell is a national treasure.