By now it’s well known that Glen Campbell, the legendary recording star, is in the fight of his life with Alzheimer’s disease. To the credit of him and his family, it’s not a battle he’s taking lightly. In fact, in spite of the difficulties his condition presents, Campbell and family decided to embark on a 151-date farewell tour over the course of 2011-12. In director James Keach’s new documentary feature film, Glen Campbell: I’ ll Be Me, we travel with Glen, his band, and his family across the country as he plays to sold-out audiences filled with adoring fans. The Campbells also make time for a visit to Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of greater investment in Alzheimer’s research and care.
So how did he do it? How did a man in the throes of Alzheimer’s manage to perform on stage to thousands of people while touring the country? The answer, as the film reveals, is with a lot of love, faith, hope, and support.
Preserving Your Memory: How did you come upon the idea for Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me? What made you want to make this film?
James Keach: Julian Raymond, who produced Glen’s last several albums, was producing some music for me and kept saying, “You’ve got to make this movie. You’ve got to meet Glen.” And I said, I’m not sure that’s what I want to do. I’d just made a movie about a singer from Arkansas. And he told me, no, Glen’s got Alzheimer’s. So I told my partner, Trevor Albert, and we agreed—this sounds like a very tough subject to make a piece of entertainment about. So Julian said, would you please meet him. So over the weekend, Trevor and I watched every movie we could on Alzheimer’s. I told Trevor, “These films are so depressing. How can we do this?” But I wanted to be respectful, and meet Glen. Anyway, we met Glen and Kim. He came into the living room, and my son Johnny had his guitar, and Glen looked at Johnny and said, “I play the guitar! You want me to show you something?” Johnny said, sure! Glen said, “This is what my Uncle Boo taught me to play!” And he just shredded it. And then Glen said again, “I play the guitar!” Johnny was a little confused, but soon understood it was the Alzheimer’s. So, I was thinking we’d last 5 weeks at the most, but it lasted 151 shows over 3 years. We fell in love with Glen and Kim and the kids. I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s, and now it’s become such an important part of my life. I want to make a difference in the lives of millions of us who will encounter this. Glen humanized Alzheimer’s, like Magic Johnson humanized AIDS. Glen chose to say, “I’m not afraid of it, this is what God gave me, and I want to show the world. I want you to help me, James.”
PYM: Was this film a labor of love from the outset for you, or did it become that along the way?
JK: It was a labor of love. We financed the film ourselves. We thought it was going to be a short run, but after three years of working on it, it became a spiritual journey, really. When you see how the family behaves toward each other, and the way the audience reacted with Glen, you realize how special Glen and his family are. I had the camera on stage, right next to Glen, and saw how he interacted with his daughter and sons—the conversation Glen was having with the audience was so beautiful, they embraced him and lifted him up. They carried him to another place. He knew when he’d forget stuff, and he’d say to the audience, “Does that ever happen to you?” It was just an unbelievable experience as a filmmaker. I think Glen and his family will create an opportunity to change the conversation about this disease. It’s the secret in the closet, and now it’s time for all of us to join together in a big conversation and embrace each other around this.
PYM: One of the many striking things about Glen Campbell is that he treats the people around him like family, whether he’s related to them or not. Did you come to feel like part of the “family” since you were with him so much for so long?
JK: We were totally part of the family. Glen, Kim would say, could remember where “his friend with the beard lived” and would want to come visit. I never knew if Glen knew my name, but he always knew who I was.
PYM: Glen Campbell is notorious for his sense of humor. Obviously, you captured that on film. Did you sense that he was losing that as his disease progressed over the time you were with him?
JK: No, in fact, it was the opposite— he would always look for the laughter. “I’ve laughed and I’ve cried, and it’s a helluva lot better to laugh,” as he says in the film. At one point we were telling his jokes back to him, and he’d get such a kick out of it. One of his jokes was that he was so cold, he was like a chicken with a capon! He’d laugh so hard at that. He’s constantly trying to make people laugh. He’s a good, good man.
PYM: The Campbells gave you unprecedented access to Glen and the family throughout the tour and beyond. Why was it so important to show how Glen is doing in his day-to-day activities?
JK: Well, I think that if there’s going to be any truth, any revelation about the disease, you have to see Glen in his everyday life. We gave Kim a camera and she’d turn the camera on and they’d live. It was always with the understanding that we would show nothing that wasn’t dignified or didn’t tell the story. We shot 1400 hours of film. We wanted to tell the truth about this disease, so unlike reality TV, this is actually real. None of this was scripted, obviously.
PYM: Throughout the film there are moments of supreme sadness juxtaposed with other moments of unbridled joy. Was that reflective of the journey you took with the Campbells in making this film?
JK: Yes, that was very reflective of the experience with Glen and what he and his family went through. One minute they were very elated and he was brilliant on his stage, and the next minute he didn’t know where he was or who you were. As a filmmaker, it was very intentional to balance things so the audience has the experience we had on the journey with him.
PYM: What did you take away from the experience of making this film?
JK: You have to live in the moment and be grateful for every day that you have. You have to learn to accept that things aren’t perfect, and to live with the hand you’re dealt—to make the best of every day, and never give up. Glen would say so many things, and repeat them because they were very important to him. Glen Campbell has taught me to really live in the moment, to be grateful for all the blessings that I have, and not being afraid of showing the gnarly truth. He had a lot of courage to let us see him at his worst, but I would say by seeing him at his worst, we’re seeing him at his best.
PYM: How did making this film change your view of Glen? Of Alzheimer’s disease?
JK: I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s before we started the movie and so it educated me about the tsunami that’s facing the world, and unless we find some way to slow it down, we’ll be facing something worse than any war. When I started this film, I didn’t realize how unbelievably talented this man was, how deep his faith was, and how willing he was to ride the waves of life in a very honest way. He talks so openly about his failures in life, but his failures, in the way he talked about them, became his successes. This is Glen’s most noble moment, and he’s willing to show the world his faults and his triumphs. He’s been amazingly successful and continues to be. He’s amazingly human. God willing he’s going to inspire millions of people not to give up on life, even if we’re facing Alzheimer’s, and to love the people with it.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me will be playing in theaters nationwide beginning Oct. 24. Check your local theater listings for a date and time near you.