When American music icon Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, he and his wife Kim made history with their decision to go public with his diagnosis. It was the first time an American celebrity would share this experience globally. Inspired by their faith in God and the support of family, Glen and Kim realized it was vital not to hang back in the shadows, but to laugh and have joy despite the “dying of the light.” Coinciding with the announcement was the release of Glen’s album, Ghost on the Canvass and what was to be the beginning of his short, three-week “Goodbye Tour;” Glen wanted fans to be apprised of his condition in case his stage presence didn’t appear to be “letter perfect.” Kim and his children (all three are in the band), knew they were taking an incredible risk going on the road. However, Glen was enthusiastic and James Keach, after meeting Kim and Glen, signed on to direct Glen Campbell, I’ll Be Me which would encompass footage of Glen’s “Goodbye Tour” and pay tribute to Glen’s award-winning career, his prodigious musicianship and his startling talent that was still vibrant despite the devouring illness.
Not the family nor Glen Campbell nor James Keach and his team were prepared for what happened when they embarked on the tour and the film shoot. James Keach’s perspective and life changed as did his team members and the Campbell family. All watched in awe as Glen had the time of his life creating some of the finest musical moments of his career. The documentary is an extraordinary record of concerts unfolding and gaining in momentum, of the audiences rallying around Glen and receiving inspiration from his anointed voice and incredible guitar playing, of Glen’s gradual decline over a period of two years, of his great good will and faith that “God has a purpose for everything He does.”
Keach chronicles the problems and the hurdles that had to be overcome to produce the shows which were not always running on automatic. We see Glen’s relationship with Kim and their devotion to one another, the response of Ashley, Cal and Shannon to their dad’s Alzheimer’s, family scenes during and after concerts and their support, love and courage during the road trips that continued and extended beyond everyone’s expectations. As the tour morphed from 50 concerts to 80 and and more cities were added, filmmakers and the Campbells realized that the “Goodbye Tour” was a phenomenon, something completely unique and out there, something whose greatness and import they perhaps didn’t realize at the time because they were too close to it.
But the audiences realized they were seeing the likes of what they were never to see again in their lifetime. Keach captures their excitement and the wonder and miraculous fervor as the tour extended into a second year and took the classification of “the long goodbye of Alzheimers” and spun it on its head with Campbell performing with purpose, with moment, with greatness to sold out crowds show after show after show. When the number 151 was reached, the family decided together that their purpose had been achieved. The message was clear: even though one has been stricken, one can play out the cards according to how they will it. Glen Campbell willed his being through his voice, his music, his singular talent. In the time of his greatest weakness, he showed his greatest strength, once again stepping to the forefront of the music world as he had done so many times before. Above all, he connected with fans globally spreading the good news that one must never retreat, never give up, never “die” before one has “sung what he or she is on earth to sing about!”
Keach’s vision is purposeful and dynamic for he thematically interplays the spectacle of the tour with a retrospective of Glen Campbell’s incredible career. Through this chronicle, we come to understand the uniqueness of his skill and talent as a guitar player and singer whose interpretation of songs always carried a wistful, memorable timbre. Keach recalls Glen Campbell was the first crossover country music star creating opportunities for country musicians. He includes clips from his youthful hits and appearances on Johnny Carson and the Smothers Brothers and other venues each solidifying a milestone of who Glen Campbell is. At important junctures Keach adds scenes from the present with Kim and Glen at home in Malibu dealing with issues as Glen struggles to keep center. He includes road clips in the trailer as the family drives to various venues and film clips at the concerts with Glen singing and playing to electrified crowds. Each underscores who Glen was and still is and how he is striving to remain himself with faith and humor, loving Kim and his family.
Keach also includes commentary from celebrities who worked with him and those he influenced from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift and others who identify Glen’s brilliance and country boy humility. The result and the effect of this is powerful. We begin to understand the depth of this man and the poignant struggle he is going through, and the strength of Kim and his children who help him endure. It is heartbreaking and yet uplifting because Keach reminds us of the times of laughter with the bonds of love and family. We see and understand their conflict of loss and the strain of keeping every precious moment with Glen alive and sustained.
Keach and the Campbells are our teachers gently reminding us of our own humanity. It is a searing wake up call: celebrity and wealth are no defense against a scourge like Alzheimer’s. There is no pedestal where one can climb to and remain safe from mortality; we are all made of the same miry clay and will crumble. How we choose to crumble is of paramount importance as Keach shows so authentically and truthfully with this symbolic parable of Glen Campbell’s story of courage and humility. Do we have the fortitude and hope to get to the next day? More importantly, for those who love us shouldn’t we?
On one level the film is uplifting and inspiring. It teaches tremendous lessons to those confronting family members with Alzheimer’s. On another level it is a profound portrait of a family whose love of each other and the making of music sustains them and extends their quality of life and interrelationship. Kim and Glen’s decision to risk going public is one for which we must be appreciative. The announcement, the tour, this film should bring massive attention to this most pernicious and reclusive of diseases. Keach and the Campbell’s have broken down barriers of shame and walls of silence with their openness, empathy and understanding. They have given us a gift and shown us that Alzheimer’s never overtakes the identity of an individual, though perhaps it may appear to by wiping out memories. Yet, their being is. It can never be taken. Glen Campbell will be himself to the last.