Glen Campbell May Forget Nowadays, But We Won’t

Who could have imagined watching a documentary about the mental decline of an Alzheimer’s sufferer could be sad, empowering, and joyous in equal measure?  Yet that’s the effect those with a heart will have after seeing James Keach’s moving documentary Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me, which is currently on its last showings at the AMC Metreon 16.

In 2011, country music legend Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Rather than seclude himself, he and his family went public with the diagnosis before setting out on a Goodbye Tour in support of Campbell’s last album Ghost On The Canvas.  But what was originally intended to be a final five-week concert tour turned into 151 shows done over a year-and-a-half.   His family’s love and laughter as well as the adulation expressed by live audiences would help Campbell connect one final time with the musical gifts that made him famous.

Keach’s film has the same effect as that of seeing Death of the Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Death image courtesy of DC Comics

Instead of turning the subject represented into an object of dread and fear, Keach like Gaiman turns something as inevitable as mental decline from Alzheimer’s into a part of life.  The tour captured on camera may be a Goodbye Tour.  Yet love can still be displayed towards the mentally declining Campbell by both family members and audience members who appreciate the musical gifts the singer shared over his career.  It’s also a small blessing that Campbell’s love of performing before an appreciative audience triggers brain activity that keeps his Alzheimer’s at bay.

Before a tense Tonight Show performance, the idea of a Goodbye Tour seemed impossible.  Campbell’s behavior at rehearsal made his wife and children pray very hard that their father wouldn’t royally screw up live.  The vitality the country legend displayed in earlier live performances convinced the Campbell family they should go ahead with the tour.

The care and concern displayed by the Campbell family defuses any cynical suggestion that the Goodbye Tour was a final money or sympathy grab.   The Campbell family show themselves to be well aware that publicly sharing and supporting their father’s gifts meant respecting the interests of the people who’ve loved and admired Campbell’s work over the decades.  Also, Campbell himself doesn’t make a big deal onstage about his Alzheimer’s.

Keach doesn’t provide false uplift about Campbell’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.  Starting from the first few frames, it’s never suggested that the singer’s disease will magically reverse itself and disappear.   Ingenuity such as using a  teleprompter during live performances helps the country legend perform well.  But seeing Campbell licking his plate at a restaurant or hearing how Campbell had taken to  urinating in places other than his toilet make clear that the disease’s effects are only deferred by the singer’s performances.

Yet until Alzheimer’s finally takes away Campbell’s ability to perform live, he and his family find joys large and small during their tour.  A little boy helps lift Campbell’s spirits in his role as the tour’s Chief Morale Officer.  Daughter Ashley Campbell’s onstage dueling banjo and guitar number with her father shows she may have inherited more than a few of her patriarch’s musical gifts.

It’s also amazing seeing the national criss-crossing undertaken by the tour.  From a famed New Orleans venue to the Library of Congress, the tour feels like a magical adventure that you never want to see end.

The Washington, DC stop shows the tour was not all music and games.   Meetings with Congressmembers from both sides of the aisle are intended to drum up support for increased federal funding of Alzheimer’s research.  Ashley Campbell’s testimony before a Congressional panel personalizes what living with Alzheimer’s means to family members.

The results of this informal lobbying are mixed.  Nancy Pelosi looks genuinely thrilled to meet Campbell in person.  John Boehner, by contrast, appears shifty and insincere.

Performances of many of Campbell’s songs are of course a major part of the film.  Not only does one hear such classics as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” but the viewer also gets treated to a final song that Campbell writes.

The emotional highlight of the film, though, would have to be a music awards ceremony where Campbell receives a Lifetime Achievement Award.  That ceremony includes a performance of Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” with all-star accompaniment that will have you singing the song again for days afterward.   This celebratory moment is made bittersweet later by a reminder that Campbell’s Alzheimer’s is still very much present.


About the Author

I'm a film reviewer for the Beyond Chron blog. Agnes Varda and Hirokazu Kore-eda are among my favorite filmmakers. I occasionally break down and watch a good action film...but don't tell anyone.

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