GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME (2014)
Directed by James Keach
PCH Films/Virgil Films 671075
103 minutes, PG
* * * *
Toward the very end of I'll Be Me, we see Glen Campbell in a studio crooning the lines to the very last song he ever recorded: "I'm Not Gonna Miss You." There could hardly be a more poignant title; Campbell suffers from Alzheimer's disease and both stage and personal lights went out shortly thereafter. Campbell sounds great on the track, but he only got through it because one of his closest crew members—whose name Campbell could no longer recall—stood beside him at the microphone pointing out the words for him to sing.
I'll Be Me is simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. In 2011, Campbell got his diagnosis. We see he and his family at the Mayo Clinic, where he jokes about the fact that he can't recall four simple words or the name of first president of the United States, but there's nothing funny about the MRI scans or his prognosis: advanced Alzheimer's. But rather than roll over, Campbell set off on a farewell tour that lasted nearly a year—buoyed by a crew of longtime associates and employees, plus his wife, Kim, and three of his children: Cal, Shannon, and Ashley—a Julia Stiles lookalike who is an amazing musician in her own right. It began on a high note with a spot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and ended in Napa, California, on a bad night made tolerable only by a very forgiving audience. In between there were shows in dozens of towns, an appearance before Congress, and a spot at the Grammys.
A performer of Campbell's stature certainly earned some slack: solid sessions work, a stint as Brian Wilson's stand-in for The Beach Boys, multiple Grammys (including his 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award), film credits galore, his own TV show, decades of good-as-gold shows, and enduring hits such as "Gentle on My Mind," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," and "Rhinestone Cowboy." (None of which he wrote, by the way.) One of the more remarkable things about the film is how well Campbell managed on the tour, as long as technology worked. At no less august place than Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the teleprompter failed and he simply couldn't go forward until it was rebooted. Still, aspects of Campbell's stage persona confounded much of what we thought we knew about the brain. Campbell couldn't remember words or faces toward the end, but he remembered how the tunes were supposed to go. Is melody more powerful than language? It's hard to say, but body memory certainly is. Put a guitar in Campbell's hands and the notes simply flew off the strings as if they bypassed thought altogether.
Keach's film is filled with cameo tributes from legions of performers: Sheryl Crow, The Edge, Steve Martin, Kathy Mattea, Paul McCartney, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Chad Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Urban, Jimmy Webb…. There are also political tributes, including one from fellow Arkansasan Bill Clinton. Some of the praise would seem mawkish were it not for the fact that many of Campbell's admirers were there because Alzheimer's has also ravaged their families. Brad Paisley delivers one of the more poignant lines. After informing us that his family has been hit several times by this horrifying disease, he turns to the camera and says simply, "I'm next. I'm 41, so let's figure this out, okay?" Kudos to Keach for not sugarcoating the story.
Campbell was no saint in his heyday. He was, in essence, a Southern good old boy—with all its virtues (charm, corny sense of humor, good manners) and its vices (Baptist faith preached but not practiced, chauvinism, rightward political drift). He has been married four times and, by his own admission, was often an absentee father to his eight children. He battled both cocaine and alcohol addiction, and was such a carouser that he took up with Tanya Tucker when she was 21 and he was 44. Much of his life followed the all-too-familiar celebrity-behaving-badly arc. That we feel great sympathy for him despite his shortcomings is another measure of Keach's documentary skills. And we should feel sympathy.
As inspiring as the tour was, the story cannot end well and does not. We see Campbell spiral into paranoia and witness his social graces dissolve one by one. The tour was the last hurrah and things have gone down hill since. The 79-year-old Campbell is now in a long-term facility and, as a final tragic footnote, several of his children have sued Kimberly, accusing her of isolating him. Alas, this too is a predictable story arc. You should watch the film, drink in its brief triumphs, and then contact your representatives to tell them to take up Brad Paisely's challenge.