Some 45 minutes into the exceptional new documentary I'll Be Me, U2 guitarist The Edge offers an opinion on the movie's subject, Glen Campbell. In 2011-2012, Campbell, despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, had been touring, performing to packed houses of loyal fans across the country. His performances were quite impressive, and The Edge noted that when he accessed the well-developed part of his brain that housed his musical ability, Campbell's functioning seemed to improve across the board. Now, to the best of my knowledge, The Edge is not a medical professional. But about a half later, one of the actual brain experts interviewed in the movie says essentially the same thing. There is a magic going on here in the mystery we call the brain. The disease may ravage, but music, at least temporarily, has the ability to heal.
When producer Trevor Albert was initially approached about doing a project around Campbell's farewell tour, he and directing partner James Keach had no interest. They were not documentarians. Albert had primarily been involved with comedies throughout his career, and Keach, though serving as a producer on the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, was not particularly driven to make a country music film. Most of all, neither man was all that enthusiastic about making a movie about Alzheimer's. The subject didn't exactly have "crowd-pleasing blockbuster" written all over it.
Meeting Campbell and his wife Kim in person changed their minds. What began as a small project initially constructed around the release of Campbell's final studio album and one or two live performances turned into an epic journey: a chronicle of 151 shows from the Nokia in L.A. to the Ryman in Nashville, with stops in virtually every major city in the USA. As Keach's film reveals, the stars and the common fans alike came out to watch a musical icon sing one final song. The film also reveals the progressive degeneration of a magnetic personality and a sharp mind. Most of all, it reveals the extraordinary journey that Campbell's support system, headed up by his 4th wife Kim, and including three of his children and many long-time friends, makes right along with him. The movie stands as a testament to the power of patience, love, and kindness in the face of a hellishly powerful adversary.
I'll Be Me functions on two levels. There is a portrait of Glen Campbell, the performer. In this regard, Keach and Albert could not have found a more interesting subject. Campbell came along at a time of great upheaval and his reputation may have suffered a bit as a result. His most successful years coincided with a pop culture shift away from the older forms of music, including traditional country, in favor of the new youth-centric hard rock. Earlier in the 1960s, CBS had found great success on television by counterprogramming that rock & roll revolution with old fashioned country cornball; programs like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and critically-slaughtered yet beloved Hee Haw. But Campbell, though he had roots in country, was much more than a country singer. The man played with the Beach Boys. Instead of Hee Haw, he was more closely associated with the ultra-cool and subversive Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He was, to those in the know, amongst the finest guitar players across any genre in the '60s and '70s.
Campbell had his own variety show on CBS from 1969-1972. With his All-American looks and his easy laugh, CBS hoped he could bridge the gap between the old and the new. He may never have been as edgy as the country outlaws like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but the poignant weariness of Wichita Lineman and the infectious self-awareness of Rhinestone Cowboy would become hallmarks of an era in which country music, and popular music as a whole, evolved. Keach is wise not to try and turn I'll Be Me into a biopic. There are a few brief montages to supply context. And there are a number of celebrity testimonials from the likes of Brad Paisley and Bruce Springsteen, Keith Urban and Vince Gill which fill us in on Campbell's place in musical history. But the details of his past - his first three marriages, his substance abuse issues - they are mentioned and then set aside. The movie is not about Glen Campbell's life.
It is about one of the final chapters of that life, a chapter dominated by a ruthless enemy that strips away its victim's memory and thought process. Alzheimer's Disease is often spoken of in hushed tones. The very name conjures up a visceral terror in much the same way that "cancer" does. But there have been many breakthroughs in cancer research over the last several decades. Alzheimer's is still a whispered word, shrouded in secrecy and shame. Many experts believe that funding for Alzheimer's research might be increased if the disease's victims, and the families of its victims, would be more willing to open up about their experiences. And that is the other, more important, level on which I'll Be Me functions.
Campbell and his family decided to announce his disease, and subsequently participate in this film, in the hopes of destigmatizing the condition. In this regard, Campbell's wife Kim, becomes the central heroic figure. She describes herself as a stage mother, with him every step of the way: on tour, seeing doctors, visiting power brokers in the U.S. Congress where their daughter Ashley testified in support of increased funding for research. Kim almost always has a smile on her face even as she describes the various insults of the disease. Glen's inappropriate behavior, which will be well-known to all who have experience with dementia, is referenced, often with a weary laugh, but not obsessed over. In this regard, the movie really does serve as a textbook for how to try and maintain perspective. Frustration and anger are unavoidable. But taking a broader view, and remembering to laugh whenever possible, is essential. There are many painful, and at times scary, moments in I'll Be Me, but the overall tone is one of humor, coming primarily from Glen himself.
Indeed, in a movie that contains a lot of difficult material, perhaps the most difficult question remains off screen. It is the question of how this movie came into being, and it is something that Keach never addresses. I'll Be Me could not have been made without the dedicated participation of Kim Campbell and Glen's children who appear as part of his band. But we never really learn what Glen's feelings are about this laying bare of his deterioration. By the time we meet him, the impairment is obvious. He never reacts negatively to the presence of cameras in his home, on his tour bus, in his doctor's offices, but it is easy to imagine that since this is a man who lived his life in the public eye, he simply grew to ignore the camera without really comprehending what it was recording. In 1967, documentarian Frederick Wiseman brought his cameras to a correctional facility for the mentally ill and showed the world the horrific treatment these inmate/patients received. The film, Titicut Follies, helped usher in much needed reform, but also raised the question of consent. The subjects were asked whether they wanted to be put on film. By the time Keach and Albert came to the project, it is questionable as to whether Glen Campbell was cognizant enough to give consent. We can only hope that his wife and children, acting on his behalf, would be most aware of his feelings and best able to make the decision to grant the filmmakers access.
Campbell's career in film is minimal. His one major achievement was playing La Boeuf opposite John Wayne in the original True Grit (the role played by Matt Damon in the 2010 remake). Wayne, who a decade earlier had starred opposite another singer, Dean Martin, in Rio Bravo, lobbied for Campbell because he knew very well what it took to star in a movie. It took the courage to put your face on a screen stretched thirty feet wide in front of a fickle audience. It meant exposing yourself to ridicule on a very big stage. It is a particular type of courage that performers at any level must master. Campbell acquitted himself quite well in True Grit. But after dabbling a bit more in film, he mostly left that world. Until now. The courage that he displays in I'll Be Me, not to mention the perfect pitch and kick-ass guitar licks, may well trump all of his previous performances in a stellar career. And I'll Be Me may have more lasting impact as well.