One of the most acclaimed and successful American entertainers of all time is an Arkansas country boy named Glen Campbell. In his heyday, Campbell was truly the king of all media: first and foremost a singer with 36 chart hits including “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Gentle On My Mind,” he also happened to be host of a network TV variety series, a movie star and an instrumentalist so accomplished that he was an elite studio musician in his early days.
In 2011 Campbell – who was 75 years old at the time – announced a series of concerts that would be a victory lap for his five-decade career. They would also be a poignant farewell, because he also revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease.
A new documentary, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, follows the entertainer on this final tour and powerfully traces the entertainer’s decline as his disease progresses. It is heartbreaking to see this gifted man virtually fade away before your eyes.
Dr. Joseph Masdeu, director of the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Houston Methodist and a professor of neurology for Weill Cornell Medical College, has seen the movie and he believes that it may help educate audiences about Alzheimer’s, which affects more than 5 million Americans.
“It is excellent, very perceptive … fascinating for a neurologist,” Masdeu says. “The film is really a moving and informative documentary.”
Masdeu is impressed how matter-of-factly the film depicts Alzheimer’s symptoms and a patient’s state of mind. In the opening scenes, Campbell watches old home movies with his wife Kim. Campbell recognizes no one – not his then-wife, not his own children, not even himself. Later, in a medical examination, Campbell is incapable of naming the first U.S. president and cannot identify where he is at the time.
But even in the face of this devastating condition, the film is a joyous celebration of Campbell’s music and strikes a hopeful note as it shows his family’s love and support. “It shows how, when a family understands the disease, a patient’s life can be wonderful,” Masdeu says.
Masdeu also applauded the film’s depiction of the support Campbell received from audiences at shows along his tour. Because he could not remember song lyrics, Campbell was completely dependent on teleprompters. One sequence begins when the teleprompter system crashes, and Campbell brings the performance to a dead halt. The camera does not turn away as viewers relive awkward minutes until the system is restored and the show goes on.
James Keach, the film’s director, says scenes like that and others, which starkly depict Campbell’s condition, were tough to film and to experience. “We had the complete, total support of Glen’s family … ultimately, they want to help educate everyone about the true face of Alzheimer’s disease.”
In fact, Campbell himself asked Keach and his partner Trevor Albert to make the documentary. Keach and Albert co-produced the Academy Award-winning Walk The Line, about Johnny Cash and June Carter, and at first they believed they were going to create a simple music documentary about Glen Campbell.
“Originally we thought there was no way to make an upbeat movie about Alzheimer’s disease,” Keach says. “But we saw Glen’s humor and courage, his faith and his love for his family even as he faced this horrible disease. And we saw the love and complete support that came from his family … That is truly the heart of this film.”
By the time Campbell finished the tour of 151 shows in 2012, his skills had deteriorated noticeably. In April of this year, he was admitted into a long-term care facility. Keach says his disease has progressed to the point where communication is nearly impossible.
Even so, the 78-year-old Campbell can still occasionally pick up a guitar and play with some of the skill that made him a sought-after musician decades ago. Masdeu says this shows how the disease does not affect the entire brain at one time, but affects some areas more than others. Keach believes it also proves how deeply music is embedded in Glen Campbell.
“Music is his first language,” Keach adds, “and it’s the last thing he’s going to forget.”Music is Glen Campbell's first language and the last thing he’s going to forget Click To Tweet
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is currently playing in select theaters around the country. It will open in Houston on Nov. 21 for a limited engagement.