Glen Campbell is one of the legends of country music – a former session musician who broke big as a solo artist, managing to transcend the separate worlds of country and pop with a series of hits written by the musical genius Jimmy Webb, and then finding his own signature song in Rhinestone Cowboy in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, he slipped from his pedestal and got lost in a world of drink, drugs and bad relationships before having a late carer revival in the 2000s. But the story of redemption took an unexpected turn in 2011, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While most artists might have slipped out of the public eye at this stage, Campbell took a courageous- if risky – chance, and set off on a farewell tour, performing to sold out audiences even as his memory disintegrated and his sense of sense collapsed.
This documentary follows him on that tour, and documents his steady decline – you see him get worse and worse as the film progresses, losing more and more of himself as he goes on – and yet somehow, he manages to mostly pull it together on stage. Sure, the words are on a tele-prompter, his guitar playing starts to become more discordant and he is sometimes confused (playing the same song twice, not remembering who his band are, even though three of them are his own kids) and sometimes not knowing where the hell he is – but the audience is almost willing him on, and against all odds, he manages to get through the shows and reach the end of the tour – though by the final show, it is clear that there can be no more gigs added. The film ends as it can only end – with Campbell’s last moments of who he was slipping away from him.
If this sounds like a tragic story – well, it is. And yet the film manages to avoid being a bleak experience. There’s a lot of humour here – early on Campbell comes across as happy-go-lucky, unbothered by the fact that he can’t remember anything (as he comments, there are things in his past that he’d rather forget), and the work seems to keep him going. Inevitably, the fun starts to become thin on the ground as the film goes on, though.
Live, Campbell is clearly not the man he was – the voice, while still strong, is no longer as smooth as it was, and he looks increasingly frail and vulnerable on stage. His children, led by daughter Ashley, help him through the show and there are moments where you can see the worry on their faces, as he struggles through songs, talking during them and losing track of where he is. Yet this sense of frailty and vulnerability gives a certain authenticity to his performances that perhaps the ultra-slick Campbell of the 1970s lacked – there is a humanity here that you can’t help but be touched by.
Directed unflashily by James Keach, I’ll Be Me is a haunting and eye-opening study of the effects of Alzheimer’s – rarely has its effects been so closely followed from the moment of diagnosis on. There’s a nagging worry about how fair the film is on Campbell – he was hardly in a position to give informed consent to its production, and while I can understand and sympathise with the motives of his wife and family in allowing such intimate access to his life at this point, it sometimes feels like an intrusion into something that should be a private affair. Then again, the tour itself, and the very public revelations about his illness, were themselves defiant statements, and the film seems very much part of this. And why, we could ask, should an illness like this be swept under the carpet?
If you don’t know much about Campbell’s career, this film won’t fill you in (there is an excellent BBC documentary about him that you should seek out for a career retrospective), but chances are you will be familiar with the music anyway – classics like Gentle On My Mind, Wichita Lineman, By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Galveston have all stood the test of time. The film does give space to various talking heads – from Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow to Steve Martin and Bill Clinton – who heap praise on the singer but add little of substance; had this been a retrospective, then their comments might have been more relevant, but as it is, it’s only when some of them discuss their own family experiences with Alzheimer’s that the interviews make sense.
The film ends with Campbell recording his final track – I’m Not Gonna Miss You is a heart-breaking confession and confrontation of his own already lost memory, and sits alongside Johnny cash’s recording of Hurt and David Bowie’s Black Star as a statement from an artist facing their own mortality. Campbell, aged 79, is still alive – but now in the final stages of the disease and unable to communicate. This film feels like his own obituary – and in a way, it is, as the essence of the man has now died, even if the body is still alive. As such, it is a fitting tribute to a great artist.