On the Road With Alzheimer’s in ‘I’ll Be Me’
From the very first scene, “I’ll Be Me”signals that it is not going to be a conventional documentary about a celebrity, in this case the country-pop singer and guitarist Glen Campbell. As Mr. Campbell sits in a darkened room watching home movies of his younger self, he asks his wife, Kim, “Who is that?”
“It’s you, honey,” she replies, “it’s a movie about you,” to which he, still puzzled, replies: “No kidding? I’ll be me.”
In 2011, Mr. Campbell, then 75, revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease and announced a series of farewell concerts for that fall. So “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” opening Oct. 24, was conceived as a behind-the-scenes record both of that final tour and of the difficult struggle of Mr. Campbell and his family against an incurable disease that afflicts more than five million Americans.
“The more we learned about Alzheimer’s, the more we wanted to shine a light on it and the more we became aware of the potential of this movie to be a catalyst for change,” said Mrs. Campbell, a former Radio City Music Hall dancer who met the singer on a blind date in 1981. “It turned into something bigger than we had imagined.”
The original plan, said the film’s director, James Keach, was to follow Mr. Campbell on what was envisioned as a five-week tour. But that undertaking grew into 151 shows over 15 months, and Mr. Keach, operating with a very small crew, continued to tag along, even when the Campbells were at his doctor’s office or at home with family or friends.
“It was daunting, the idea of doing it, because how do you make something that is entertaining about a man with Alzheimer’s?” said Mr. Keach, who has directed episodes of numerous television shows and was also the co-producer of “Walk the Line,” the 2005 biopic about Johnny Cash. “In some ways, it’s more difficult than having a scripted movie, because there you have your structure figured out. In this case, you go from Stage 2 to Stage 4 or 5 of Alzheimer’s, and you have to be true to that.”
Mrs. Campbell also had a camera and shot events at home. The film does not emphasize moments that may be painful or embarrassing to watch, but neither does it flinch from them: Mr. Campbell is shown erupting in rage as his dementia worsens, and one discussion in his doctor’s office focuses on the singer’s difficulty in finding the toilet in hotel rooms and his own bedroom, which leads him to urinate in wastebaskets.
Mr. Keach said that one of the lessons he learned from “Walk the Line” focus groups that saw Johnny Cash consuming drugs was that “a little bit goes a long way” in showing such frailties. For her part, Mrs. Campbell said she trusted Mr. Keach to “edit and tailor the film to protect Glen’s dignity” while at the same time “telling the truth about this disease.”
In documentaries that get in so close to their subjects’ lives, especially those unable to fend for themselves, the moral issue of informed consent often arises. But in Mr. Campbell’s case, “he not only had the capacity, he had the desire” to have his situation documented, Mr. Keach said.
Mrs. Campbell added: “In the early stages of this disease, your short-term memory begins to falter, but you are still cognizant of what is going on and can still make decisions. Glen was fully aware of his diagnosis and what we were attempting to do.”
(Last month, Mr. Campbell and his management were sued by a Los Angeles-based media production company, which accused him of reneging on an agreement to make the documentary with it. In a statement issued last week, a lawyer for the film’s producers, Lisa Callif, said they do not “have any personal knowledge of the allegations set forth in the complaint.”)
The film has numerous concert sequences showing the highs and lows of Mr. Campbell’s performances as well as the compassion of audiences that knew they were getting their last glimpse of him. At the beginning of the tour, Mr. Campbell is still playing guitar fluidly, though often struggling to remember lyrics, but by the last show, in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, even his dexterity is suffering.
“It was almost like a game of roulette,” said Ashley Campbell, the singer’s youngest daughter, now 27, who played keyboards and banjo in the tour band, which also included her brothers Shannon and Cal. “You’d have a great show and then a difficult show, and you’d start to wonder, ‘Oh no, is this getting towards the end?’ ”
Mr. Campbell has been a part of the American musical landscape for so long that it is easy to forget that he has played many roles. As the country music stars Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban note in the film, he was instrumental in bringing their genre into the pop mainstream in the late 1960s, but before that, he was a session musician on dozens of Top 10 pop hits and even toured as a member of the Beach Boys.
“He had this overall musicality, and was born with an encyclopedic knowledge of keys,” said the songwriter Jimmy Webb, a friend since 1967 who wrote “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and other hits for Mr. Campbell. “He’d take a scrap of paper and turn it into an arrangement, and did so many times for the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas. He was more entertaining to work with than almost anyone because of the childish excitement he brought to that process.”
Films about musicians struggling with adversity, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “20 Feet from Stardom,” have won the Oscar in the feature documentary category the last two years. “I’ll Be Me” is already getting some Oscar buzz, but Mr. Keach said his film “is not a music doc, it’s about a man battling a disease and going out on the stage every night not knowing where he is.”
But the film also offers a broader examination of Alzheimer’s impact on society. In one particularly emotional scene, Ashley Campbell testifies before Congress about her father beginning to forget who she is, and in another, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell visit the House minority leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, and push for more funding for Alzheimer’s research.
The film represents an important educational opportunity, said Dr. Ronald C. Petersen of the Mayo Clinic, who diagnosed Mr. Campbell’s disease and is also chairman of a nationalAlzheimer’s advisory council. “One of our biggest struggles is still getting people to acknowledge this disease,” he added. “So we need to embrace this and say he didn’t do anything wrong in his life to bring this on, that this can happen to virtually anyone.”
Sony Pictures Classics plans to release another movie this year that should also raise Alzheimer’s awareness, the fictional feature “Still Alice.” Based on Lisa Genova’s best-selling 2007 novel of the same name, that film stars Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“I’ll Be Me” features former President Bill Clinton talking about Mr. Campbell, a fellow Arkansan, and his courage in becoming a public face of Alzheimer’s. In addition, Bruce Springsteen, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mr. Paisley and the country singer Kathy Mattea weigh in, talking about family members who suffer from the disease.
Mr. Webb also appears in the film, but he said has not yet seen it and is not sure when, or even if, he will. “It’s too personal, to be frank, too painful,” he said.
“In a very real sense, Glen the artist, the virtuoso and true master of so many aspects of musicality, in many ways that Glen is gone,” he added. “And I say that as a caress and not as a dismissal. The sense of loss is so complete that it’s difficult for me to find the words.”
By spring of this year, the disease had advanced to the point that Mr. Campbell moved into what his wife described as a “memory care community,” a long-term care and treatment facility near Nashville. She visits him daily, she said, but his musical skills and awareness are now so eroded that he is sometimes not even conscious of songs being played around him.
If he’s handed a guitar, “sometimes a melody will come out,” she said, “but often it’s very dissonant and doesn’t make sense.” She continued: “But our son Shannon was with him just the other day, and Glen just sounded out the melody for ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ So I do think that music is still the most deeply embedded thing in him, and it’s a delight when it comes back.”
Mr. Webb added: “It’s a curious feeling, difficult and poignant, when you reach that tipping point in the relationship where a person no longer recognizes you. I think that’s very difficult. I really wish I could go over and see him and play some songs. Really.”