“I’m still here, but yet I’m gone.” These first words from Glen Campbell’s final recorded song accurately describe any person in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Dementia. As James Keach’s documentary covering this country music legend’s farewell tour advances, these lyrics tragically and increasingly reflect the mental condition of Campbell, too.
The opening moments of I’ll Be Me effectively introduce us to Campbell and his disease. As he and his wife Kim watch home movies together, Campbell asks, “Who is that?” when an image of his younger self appears. Quickly, it becomes apparent that Campbell doesn’t recognize a former wife or his children in these images, either.
We’re then rushed through a rapid-fire montage of Campbell’s life and career, from dirt-poor Arkansan to musical Zelig, showing up at least briefly in the career of many great musicians of the 20th Century, while achieving fame and acclaim in his own right. Who knew that Campbell played on the Beach Boys’ seminal Pet Sounds, or that he recorded with Elvis and Sinatra? (Not me, obviously.)
I wish that Keach would’ve slowed down this portion of I’ll Be Me, as the torrent of biographical information is overwhelming. Perhaps he could’ve made space by editing out a few of the more gushing, less informative encomiums that occasionally pop up in his film. (Though no doubt it would take an iron will to leave interview footage from Bill Clinton, the Boss, or the Edge on the cutting room floor.)
Fortunately, the pace soon decelerates for the main body of I’ll Be Me. Unfolding from 2011 to 2013, Keach’s documentary closely follows Campbell and his family, beginning with the near-simultaneous confirmation of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and release of his acclaimed Ghost on the Canvas album. Despite ample evidence of significant cognitive decline already, Campbell elects to go on tour with a backup band that includes three of his children.
Much credit is due to Campbell and his family for allowing Keach such extensive access to their personal lives. A lot of what we see isn’t pretty or flattering. We learn from a conversation between Glen and Kim that not long past, Campbell had been so confused at night that he was urinating in waste baskets or in the corner of their bedroom. We watch Campbell struggle with simple tasks like lacing his shoes or forming a coherent sentence. Due to Campbell’s distractibility, practice sessions for the tour are more like sound checks than true rehearsals.
Remarkably, despite such impairment, Campbell can still play a mean guitar and sing fairly competently in concert, provided the teleprompter is working properly. There’s a touching clip of Glen and his daughter Ashley playing a peppy rendition of “Dueling Banjos,” that Campbell only flubs at the end. It’s a joy, too, to see and hear him dive into classics like “Rhinestone Cowboy.” And Campbell revels in the applause and ovations from the audiences, who seem readily forgiving of his musical stumbles and laugh warmly at his self-deprecating humor.
Approximately midway through I’ll Be Me, Campbell’s tour manager candidly voices his initial fear that people were coming to these concerts for the same reason that fans go to NASCAR races, in hopes of a grand crash. In a parallel process, I must admit that I cringingly anticipated a major onstage meltdown and pondered whether Campbell was being exploited by his “handlers,” both for this musical tour and this documentary.
Gradually, my fears were assuaged. For one thing, as I mentioned already, Campbell seems his mental and emotional best when carrying out the familiar task of performing for an appreciative audience. For another, Campbell’s wife and children come across as immensely caring and supportive. Like many “Alzheimer spouses” I’ve met, Kim is consistently patient and loving towards her husband, despite being worn out by Campbell’s mood swings, impulsive whims, and confusion.
Additionally, I see great social value in such a frank documentary. I’ll Be Me is a very accurate portrait of an individual with Alzheimer’s of moderate severity. (I can say this confidently, having spent the last four years of my professional career almost exclusively treating patients with dementia.) As such, I think this film can offer much support to families of dementia sufferers, alerting them that they’re far from alone in what they observe and feel. (Though viewers should be forewarned that watching Campbell’s decline is emotionally wrenching at times; I was brought to tears at a couple of points.)
For moviegoers fortunate enough not to have a relative or loved one with dementia, there’s much to be learned from Keach’s documentary. Regrettably, Keach stumbles a bit is in bringing on a clinician to recite an ear-numbing litany of Alzheimer’s-related statistics, momentarily turning I’ll Be Me into a public service announcement. Far better are the brief clips where various musical celebrities speak of loved ones afflicted with dementia. Best of all are the stretches where we observe Campbell and his family going through their daily paces, which mercifully make up the majority of I’ll Be Me.
With all of the “best of the year” lists making the rounds at present, I can’t help but compare I’ll Be Me with the other (forgive my bluntness) “famous person with a terminal illness” documentary of 2014, Life Itself. Although Steve James’ biography of Roger Ebert is garnering plenty of mention as the best documentary of the year, I actually believe that I’ll Be Me is the better film. For one thing, much as I esteemed Ebert, I’m convinced Campbell’s story possesses greater social merit. Just as importantly, though, Life Itself has little material that isn’t better covered by Ebert’s written autobiography of the same name. Conversely, I’ll Be Me serves up a story invigorated and brought to life much more vividly as a movie.
4 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: I agree with the MPAA’s PG rating of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, for thematic elements and brief language. There’s nothing in here unsuitable for teens and adults.)