In the last decade, there has been an influx of
distinctive and intimate music documentaries. You're Gonna Miss Me (2005) explored the life of Texas psych-rock progenitor Roky Erickson. That same year, The Devil and Daniel Johnston was an insightful look at the cult favorite's art,
music and ongoing bumpy ride of struggling with bipolar disorder. Be Here to Love Me (2006) chronicled the rocky road, songs and myriad addictions of "songwriters' songwriter" Townes Van Zandt. Much of the strength of these films drew from the benefit of a warts-and-all quality, telling stories through home movies, performance footage, and interviews with peers and families, as well as sometimes-unsettling scenes with their main subjects. We can now add the remarkable new documentary Glen Campbell … I'll Be Me to that list.
In June 2011, country legend Glen Campbell publicly announced he'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Campbell and his band, which includes three of his 20something children, then embarked on a three-week farewell tour. Ultimately, they performed 151 shows over the following year and a half. Director James Keach (who helped develop and co-produced the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) and his crew were given full access to travel with Campbell and band, as well as film the singer/guitarist's home life and even medical appointments.
Keach takes that opportunity of open entry to deliver an unflinching look into Campbell's world, while in the process removing the façade of celebrity, replacing it with a sympathetic profile of a regular person in a highly vulnerable and near-helpless state.
The film opens with Campbell and his wife, Kim, sitting in a darkened room, watching home movies. Campbell is puzzled by what he sees onscreen, unable to recognize his family and even his younger self. After his wife explains that they are watching a movie of his life, and that he is the star, he quips, "I'll be me." Over the course of the film's two-hour running time, Campbell tries to honor that proclamation as his memory begins to betray him. At times, he is increasingly aware of what is happening to him, and appears almost stoic about this turn in his life. Glen and Kim travel to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. While there, Campbell undergoes a series of injections and memory tests, which he fails. When asked by the neurologist about his inability to recall certain things, Campbell is playfully evasive about his acceptance of his condition. "When it's needed, I take care of that. I don't pay attention to those things."
I'll Be Me is ultimately a tour film, and there is surely some anxiety in watching the band walk onstage each night, since Campbell's memory and disposition shift minute by minute. At a sold-out show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the band's worst fears are confirmed in the opening moments of "Gentle on My Mind," when Campbell forgets the words to the crossover hit from the '60s, and abruptly stops the song. The band and audience laugh when it's discovered that a malfunctioning teleprompter is the culprit.
The film offers an array of concert footage, in which Campbell shows he can still transform himself into the consummate showman, including peeling off some impressive solo licks on his Fender Strat.
Keach could have diluted I'll Be Me with mawkish sentimentality, but he instead chooses to portray Campbell in an unflinching albeit compassionate light. The incredible arc of his decades-long career, which ran the gamut from being a session guitarist for Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys to scoring solo mega-hits with "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston" and "Rhinestone Cowboy," is given a respectful yet cursory overview. Scenes of older Campbell television performances, some from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour variety show, are interspersed throughout the film, yet Keach plays down Campbell's estimable legacy, instead keeping the focus on the most recent tour and the evident love Campbell and his family members have for one another.
Even though his neurologist offers that Campbell's continuing musical activities have helped stall the progression of his disease, by film's end, his decline is apparent. Loved ones' names are forgotten as Campbell becomes increasingly agitated and paranoid.
Through all the heartache and sadness of I'll Be Me, it becomes obvious that humor is key to Campbell's ability to cope with his inevitable deterioration. "I have cried and I have laughed," Campbell says to the ever-present camera. "Laughing is a helluva lot better."