WALKING INTO the SCAD Museum of Art, everyone attending Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me knew we were about to cry.
The hyped documentary follows the Country Music Hall of Famer and his family band on his farewell tour; before taking off, however, Campbell announces that he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
I went in expecting one of those wake-up call variety, glaring (read: immensely hard to watch) takes on Alzheimer’s. But, as director James Keach noted in his Q&A, he had watched many of those documentaries, and “none of them were entertaining.”
The story of I’ll Be Me centers around love, family, devotion, and the incredible power of music; by selecting those themes as the center of the final edit, we still see the pain—it’s amplified by the incredible tenderness surrounding it.
Backstage, Campbell can’t identify his children by name and asks his wife every few minutes if he is playing a show that evening. But put a guitar in the Rhinestone Cowboy’s hands, and he’s the same as he ever was. As a result, what started as a three-week tour grew into a 151 dates.
Above all, I’ll Be Me is a film about bravery and vulnerability. The Campbells were very resolute in their decision to go public about Glen’s illness, feeling it was important to put a known face with a disease that affects so many people, and also provide an explanation should anything confusing or embarrassing happen onstage.
If you’ve ever known someone with Alzheimer’s (and you likely do; more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease), you know that behavior can be entirely unpredictable. Putting someone with Alzheimer’s on stage at Carnegie Hall is as bold and fearless a statement as they come.
While there was concern that that audiences would show up hoping to see a train wreck, it couldn’t have been more opposite: Campbell’s fans were key in the experience, as they cheered him on, sang along, and showed their unconditional support.
Sure, he occasionally played “Wichita Lineman” twice in a row—but who cares? Campbell fans were there to share their love and encouragement, their deafening applause and smiles capping off each song.
I’ll Be Me isn’t so much a direct portrait of a country star, or someone who is sick, or a family man; rather, Campbell’s spirit is the protagonist of the film. When he’s told he has been awarded the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award, Campbell scoffs and retorts, “I ain’t done yet!”
Late in the film, a visibly weaker Campbell is asked how the Alzheimer’s is going. He smiles lightly and declares, “Gave it the ol’ left hook.”
Campbell’s wife, the resilient and compassionate Kim, was present for the Q&A. She advised that Campbell is currently in a care facility, and, while he can only form a few select sentences, he continues to crack jokes and laugh with his family.
With appearances from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen to Nancy Pelosi to Bill Clinton (the Campbells, and Keach, have become instrumental in the Alzheimer’s awareness movement, fighting for additional federal funding for Alzheimer’s research), I’ll Be Me is hard to watch.
It’s hard to watch in that it’s going to make you feel a scope of complex and deeply human emotions, and leave you believing in the strength of music and love.