We review Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me as it arrives on DVD today…
Aging country music hero Glen Campbell – performer of such hits as “Gentle on my Mind”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, and many others – makes arrangements to do a cross-United States final tour. So far, it sounds like many a documentary tour film. However, Campbell is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease throughout. An early scene sees him visit a doctor for an assessment; equal parts charming and obstinate, he maintains that the only reason he can’t remember the name of the first President of the United States is that it’s information he doesn’t need. The same goes for the moment when he can’t remember four words moments after being told to memorise them.
And yet, in these early scenes, Glen Campbell is still recognisably Glen Campbell, just an older, more forgetful Glen Campbell. As the picture unfolds we bear witness to a troubling loss of the self. As many different talking heads assert throughout the picture, memory is all we have of ourselves; it is, in a sense, life itself. This argument is taken up during scenes towards the middle in which politicians including Nancy Pelosi are lobbied to support greater federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. A charmingly candid Brad Paisley tells us of the suffering Alzheimer’s has wrought in his own family. “I’m 41”, he says, “so you’ve got twenty-nine years!”.
Not every talking head comes off quite as well. The point of the documentary is to paint an intimate portrait of a man, surrounded by his family, trying desperately to do something meaningful – for himself, for his loved ones, for his fans – with the few months of relative lucidity he has left. We don’t actually need U2’s The Edge or the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith to pop up and tell us that Glen Campbell’s a talented musician, true as it is. We get all the evidence we need – both old fans and those who are about to become new fans – in a sequence in which he plays “Duelling Banjos” onstage with his daughter Ashley Campbell, moments after forgetting her name while trying to introduce her. Doctors marvel at his ability to retain such musicianship while the disease so thoroughly ravages all other parts of his memory, but his family seem entirely unsurprised that music should be the last thing to go.
But it does go eventually, and after an incredible 150 shows, the decision is made that to continue the tour would only be to humiliate its star, putting him on stage when he’s in no fit condition to be there. Some would argue – many have – that starting the tour in the first place was exploitative, and that it certainly shouldn’t ever have reached 150 shows. Doubtless, the film is difficult to watch, but that it is upsetting is not evidence that it is exploitative. Some things simply are upsetting, and, in any case, one doubts how much commercial potential there really is in putting a clearly sick old man on stage; if the motive was sheer money-grubbing at the end of Campbell’s life, then wouldn’t we expect to see them covering up the depressing final chapter, and pushing greatest hits albums with the handsome, telegenic young man on their cover? Conversely, it was the singer’s own wish to embark on the final tour. We only ever hear it from his wife, and never him, but then he also repeatedly forgets that he is in a film at all, or doing a tour, and certainly it sounds like the final wish of the man we get to know here, a figure who a) loves music, b) is loyal to his fans, c) is as stubborn as a mule, and d) hates being made to feel useless. And, too, we bear witness to a very genuine, affectionate relationship between Campbell and his wife of twenty-plus years. “You’ve been real kind to me”, he tells her over breakfast, “and I’ve been like a shithead”.
So the tour comes to a halt in Tampa, and Campbell’s final act as a musician is to go into the studio to record his final song, and it’s a doozy. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” talks directly about his disease, articulating the heartbreak he feels knowing that, for all that his family has meant to him and vice versa, there isn’t long to go until they’ll mean nothing to him. He has trouble with it in the studio but, with the help of the legendary Wrecking Crew of studio musicians, manages it in the final act of the film. The song was nominated for an Oscar, and totally robbed of it by the uneven John Legend/Common collaboration “Glory”.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Glen Campbell, now permanently resident in an assisted living facility in Nashville, can no longer recognise people, or communicate meaningfully at all, but his family assert that nonetheless, he maintains the cheerful demeanour that makes him such a joy to watch in this film.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is out on DVD today (23rd May), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!