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Glen Campbell's final journey

It’s clear from the very start that “I’ll Be Me,” the new film about country singer Glen Campbell, is going to be different from any documentary we’ve ever seen about any American entertainer.

The film opens with Campbell, now 78, sitting with his wife, Kim. They watch some old home movies of Campbell as a young man, joyfully playing with his kids.

“Who is that?” a confused-looking Campbell asks his wife.

“That’s you, honey,” she says.

“Who’s that?” he asks, inquiring about a young girl on the movie screen.

“That’s Debby, your oldest daughter,” Kim tells him.

It’s the first of dozens of poignant moments in “I’ll Be Me,” the powerful documentary about Campbell’s four-year battle against Alzheimer’s disease, and the efforts of his family to deal with a mind-crippling illness that now afflicts more than 5 million Americans and is the nation’s sixth leading cause of death.

What makes the film extraordinary is the Campbell family’s decision to be completely open and honest about the disease and its horrible effects on the singer. We see him meeting with doctors. We look at his brain scans. We see him in some of his most private and embarrassing moments. We watch as the disease drags down one of the most talented and energetic performers ever to step on a country music stage. “I’ll Be Me” is as much a film about Alzheimer’s disease as a film about Glen Campbell.

Director James Keach does a superb job of telling the story, building most of his film around Campbell’s farewell tour, which began in 2011 and ended more than 150 shows later in November 2012.
I was lucky enough to review one of those concerts for The Buffalo News at the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts on Oct. 25, 2012. It was far from a perfect show. At times, Campbell’s voice was powerful, clear and strong. At other times, he forgot lyrics, wandered around the stage and made odd remarks. But his guitar solos, again and again, were spectacular.

We see him in one concert after another, sometimes stumbling over his words, but always playing magnificent guitar.

Someone forgot to tell Campbell’s fingers that he has Alzheimer’s. With his daughter Ashley on banjo, he plays a blistering guitar solo on “Dueling Banjos,” one of the film’s highlights.

When someone asks Campbell how a man with dementia can play such complicated guitar parts, he says, “I couldn’t answer it, but I can do it.”

A little over a month after his UB concert, following a painfully disjointed show in Napa, Calif., that is documented in this film, Campbell’s family pulled the plug on the tour. It was the Rhinestone Cowboy’s final performance, but he didn’t even realize it.

On the whole, “I’ll Be Me” is a heartbreaking film, but one with many happy, fun and inspirational moments. Aided by his wife and his band – which includes his daughter and two of his sons, Shannon and Cal – Campbell has a lot of fun, especially when he’s on stage.

Keach shows us a lot of footage of Campbell in his golden years, trading guitar licks with a not-yet-famous Willie Nelson, hitting the big time as the host of the Smothers Brothers’ summer replacement show, acting with John Wayne in the film “True Grit,” and trading quips with the late Johnny Carson.

We learn how Campbell grew up in a poor Arkansas family, took his guitar to Hollywood and became a star. At first, he makes his mark as a studio musician, playing on hits for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and dozens of other singers. Then, he gets his big break with a couple of major hit songs written by Jimmy Webb and his role with the Smothers Brothers. In the late 1960s, there were only a handful of American musical artists as big as Glen Campbell.

He sold more than 50 million recordings, including memorable hits like “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Galveston,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.” He won Grammy Awards, got married four times, and fought off addictions to alcohol and cocaine.

Among the many musicians who speak of their admiration for Campbell in the film are Webb, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, country singers Keith Urban and Kathy Mattea, and U2’s guitarist The Edge.

The always eloquent Springsteen speaks about a loved one he lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and describes himself as a huge fan of Campbell’s music.

“It was simple on the surface, but there was a world of emotion underneath,” Springsteen says.
Campbell’s talent was still evident when he recorded his last song, the haunting and beautiful “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which has been nominated for an Oscar for best song.

Kim Campbell and daughter Ashley come off as heroic figures in “I’ll Be Me,” for their endless, unselfish and good-natured devotion to the ailing singer. We see Ashley breaking down in tears as she speaks before Congress about the need for more funding for research on dementia. This film will hit you hard if you are a fan of Glen Campbell, and even harder if anyone in your family has ever suffered with dementia.

The Campbells said they hope the film will bring about more public awareness of Alzheimer’s. It will.

Campbell spends much of the film laughing and joking, trying to carry on with life. But you can see the toll the disease is taking. Last June, he was placed in a long-term care facility in Nashville.
At one point, someone speaking off-camera asks him if he ever gets the blues.

“Yes, I do,” he answers, and the tears in his eyes speak volumes.

"I’ll Be Me"
Director: James Keach
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for profanity and adult situations.
The Lowdown: A heartfelt documentary about country singer and guitar wizard Glen Campbell, fighting Alzheimer’s as he embarks on one last tour.
email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

If you would like to find out more about Alzheimer's or help out visit the
'I'll Be Me Foundation' at:

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