Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
2014, PG, 116 min. Directed by James Keach.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 21, 2014
This documentary about the final concert tour of country-music crossover legend Glen Campbell that was undertaken while the singer-songwriter was descending into the haze of Alzheimer’s disease is a courageous piece of work. It’s also, by turns, hilarious, harrowing, hopeful, and sad. And here’s a sentence this aging but steadfast punk rocker never thought he’d write: Glen Campbell made the tears well up and spill over. Bring your handkerchiefs, because this is some seriously emo documentary filmmaking that seeks to shine a light on the dreaded disease and manages to evoke memories of a better – or at least cooler – time when Campbell’s countrified soft-rock ruled the AM and FM airwaves. As a loving portrait of an artist fading away before his very eyes, I’ll Be Me is nevertheless a joy to watch, even (or maybe especially) if you’re one of those folks who’ve always found even the artist’s greatest hits blandly, cloyingly saccharine. You’ll leave the theatre with a lump in your throat for half a dozen or more reasons, but mainly because Campbell, in his dotage, seems like such a sweet-sounding rascal.
As one of the producers of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, director James Keach knows a thing or two about the unpredictability of classic country musicians. That said, this is real life with the unpredictability quotient dialed up to 11 and the knob broken off. Traveling on a massive, 150-date, cross-country farewell tour, the still-vital looking songsmith, now 78, hardly looks a day over 55; he still has the imposing physique of Li’l Abner and the Dogpatch, Ky., sense of aw-shucks playfulness intact. It became apparent early on, however, that while the great man can still knock the stuffing out of his six-string and break into a glittering solo when called on to do so, he’s just not able to recall the lyrics. Thank goodness for teleprompters. (Or maybe not: At his gig in Nashville, the infernal device goes dead smack in the middle of “Gentle on My Mind,” leaving Campbell befuddled and groping. Even so, the sold-out audience is happily, boisterously on his side.)
I’ll Be Me isn’t only a record of Campbell’s final tour, though. It’s just as much about Alzheimer’s. Keach – with the support of the entire Campbell clan (three of his children play in his band) – tracks the effects of the degenerative disease on Campbell’s life, onstage and off, as he and wife Kimberley set out to promote congressional funding for Alzheimer’s research. Insightful and laudatory comments from U2’s the Edge, Jimmy Webb, Vince Gil, Steve Martin, Bill Clinton, and many more provide a running narrative regarding the undeniable impact of Campbell’s life and art on everything from country music to the movies (he starred with John Wayne in True Grit). Ultimately, I’ll Be Me is both an unconventional tribute to this American icon and a deep-down cri de coeur for more research on viable ways to retard the progression of Alzheimer’s and perhaps one day find a reliable cure. No one’s getting any younger, after all.