Even if you don't know who Glen Campbell is, you should watch the movie about his farewell tour, "I'll Be Me," tonight
I'll Be Me, which had a limited theatrical release in 2014, makes its TV debut tonight on CNN.
The post title isn't facetious. James Keach, director and co-producer of I'll Be Me, the story of a "goodbye tour" that was scheduled for 5½ months when he got involved but stretched to 51 concerts over some two years, has already encountered the question "Who's Glen Campbell?" (If anyone needs reminding, the "official trailer" clip provides some reminders of how big a star he was, both as a recording artist and as a TV personality.)
But then, when James co-produced the 2005 Johnny Cash-June Carter biopic Walk the Line, as he explained at a screening of I'll Be Me Friday night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, he heard the question "Who's Johnny Cash?" Notably when it came to selling the project to a studio, a bunch of studios passed, with the resident genius at Sony announcing that nobody cares about Johnny Cash. (James noted that several hundred million dollars' worth of box-office receipts suggest he was wrong.) It was in good part on the basis of the trust he'd earned with the Cashes that the Campbells were interested in having him work on their project. From James's standpoint, having been through the experience of Walk the Line made him not want to do such a project. But he agreed to meet with the Campbells, and was so taken by them, and by the fascination of how much of Glen there still was in the 75-year-old Glen, butted up against stark reminders of the Alzheimer's ravages.
Early in the film we see Kim explaining to Glen (likely not for the first time) that James is going to be working with them on a movie about him, and the always-jovial-country-boy Glen, approving, declares, "I'll be me."
By the time filming began, we see Glen making abundant use of his country-boy joviality to deflect questions about his already-impaired memory. Because by the time the 2011-12 tour documented in the film began, the public had been informed that Glen had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And yes, it's now possible to actually diagnose Alzheimer's. In the film we see him undergoing both an MRI and a PET scan, and we see doctors showing him and explaining both the picture of the shrinkage of his hippocampus, included in the Mayo Clinic clip, and a series of cross-section images of his brain that show sections that are afflicted with plaque. These are things that formerly couldn't be seen except at autopsy.
The thing that is most obviously riveting about the film is the extraordinary level of musical skill and artistry Glen retains, much of it still in evidence at the final concert, in November 2012. At one point Glen, asked how he's still able to do this, says he can't explain it, that it's all in his system somewhere. The doctors are at pains to explain that Alzheimer's deterioration is highly individual, and also speculate that Glen's ongoing deep involvement in his music seemed to be giving him some grounding, and may possibly have slowed the rate of deterioration in other aspects of his brain function.
Yes, at concerts the song lyrics are being fed to Glen on Teleprompters, and he forgets things and sometimes performs songs more than once, but the musical skills and the musicianship are pretty amazing. Already at the start of the film Kim tells us that he has become "unrehearsable," and over time his worsening condition but when it comes to performance time, he generally rises to the occasion, for audiences that clearly have come not just to see but to support him. From one concert there's a "dueling" duet with daughter Ashley on banjo and Glen on his guitar, and while Ashley seems to hope he will pick up on melodic cues she feeds him, he always has the rhythm of the cues, and as the two get deeper into the number, he generates a lot of heat.
The tour came about originally to promote a new record, made with an all-new, younger backup group (James says the record company was hoping to reach a younger audience), which included the youngest of his eight children, the three with Kim, his wife since 1982: in addition to Ashley, sons Cal and Shannon. All three come across in the film as not just gorgeous and highly talented but extremely personable. And for all the mixed emotions a project like the tour and film must have caused, they were all glad to have the opportunity not just to be with but to perform with their father over this period. Although it was a new musical group he was touring with, the road crew was his regular gang, clearly an extended family of sorts.
The family thought Glen would be up to the tour and the film, or they wouldn't have gone ahead with it. They also wanted to be open about his condition, and for the public to see that condition. From not long after they went public with the diagnosis, we see Glen appearing on The Tonight Show, doing two numbers with the band, and afterward we see Jay Leno, clearly deeply moved, coming back to thank him for appearing and inviting him to come back anytime he wants.
As James explains, Glen wanted people to see his Alzheimer's. Kim talks in the film about the importance they all felt of removing the shame from the disease, and James made a point of the considerable institutional support the film is receiving -- there are a lot of organizations involved with Alzheimer's (including Lily, which has a possibly helpful drug in the testing stages) strongly interested in getting this kind of portrait before the public.
At this point there are fewer and fewer people who haven't had a personal experience of Alzheimer's, and James rattled off some numbers about the likelihood of each of us actually having it which were scary enough that I didn't register them. The odds, it seems, are getting worse for each of us. I'll Be Me gives us a kind of view of the disease that just hasn't been available before. I expect I'll want to watch it again, and apparently there will be "extras" on the DVD that give us even more.
No doubt CNN will give the film a bunch of airings beyond tonight's premiere. It's worth checking the schedule.