Like many people all over the world, I was devastated last Tuesday to hear of the sad passing of Glen Campbell. He was a country music legend whose art touched the lives of many people. ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ was the first track I ever considered to be a favourite song and, as I’ve moved into adulthood, the haunting beauty of ‘Wichita Lineman’ has etched itself into my mind as a truly classic piece of music. Indeed, one of the few redeeming features of last year’s rather awful buddy cop movie War on Everyone was the hefty dose of Campbell on the soundtrack.
Saddened by Campbell’s passing, I decided to pop over to Netflix and seek out the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. It’s a film I missed in cinemas and indeed only became aware of when the song ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’ – Campbell’s last studio recording – was nominated for an Oscar.
As cinematic tributes go, it’s the perfect farewell to a legend.
I’ll Be Me starts with Campbell and his fourth wife Kim watching home videos. Campbell, sadly, struggles to recognise the faces of many of his loved ones as the videos play out. It’s a poignant beginning to a film that follows Campbell from the release of his final album and farewell tour, which began in August 2011 – just two months after he went public with his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
The film is an utterly heart-breaking journey as director James Keach uses his intimate access to Campbell to craft a movie that is part life on the road documentary and part moving study of a man broken by illness. We see Campbell deteriorate from the peppy first dates of the tour to the final night in California, in which he can barely read the words to his songs from an autocue, let alone remember them himself. It’s tough to watch a man with so much talent slowly losing his grip on that gift in front of thousands of people.
That’s not to say, though, that I’ll Be Me is a sad watch. It’s also inspirational to see just how much of himself Campbell is able to hold on to through his music. We frequently see Campbell unable to nail the first lines of show-opening track ‘Gentle on my Mind’, but then watch him come alive whenever the autocue asks him to play a guitar solo. When he is able to lose himself in the music, Campbell becomes the icon again and there are numerous interviews with his doctors, who are certain that music kept Campbell’s faculties far sharper than they would have been if he’d not gone on tour.
The documentary is at its best when it illuminates the contrast between Campbell on stage and Campbell away from the stage. The tender vulnerability that has always made his voice distinct is all the more resonant in this film and it turns ‘Wichita Lineman’ into even more of a tearjerker than it has always been. Meanwhile, off-stage, we see Campbell become increasingly irascible and tough to be around. He’s a proud man and a consummate performer, who is adept at masking an Alzheimer’s-induced problem with a joke or a pratfall. It’s heartening to watch him hold on to his image and sad when we see it slip.
As much as I’ll Be Me is a celebration of Glen Campbell, it’s also a crucial exercise in raising awareness of the disease that killed him. Dementia, in its various forms, currently affects 850,000 people in the UK, according to charity Alzheimer’s Research UK. The fact that I’ll Be Me shows a beloved and famous figure struggling with the disease can only be positive in increasing its visibility and therefore encouraging the donations and the research that is so desperately needed to beat the illness.
I’ll Be Me could easily have been a sad film about the deterioration of an icon. Instead, it’s an often uplifting tale of the power of a musical gift, the magnetic charisma of a legendary performer and a crucial reminder of the horror of Alzheimer’s. As a tribute to a legend, it couldn’t be more perfect.
Have you seen I’ll Be Me? What are your memories of Glen Campbell? Let me know in the comments section.