(As with all film reviews on this blog, full spoilers are provided throughout.)
For Glen Campbell fans, and for people who don’t recognize his work at all, this is a wonderful worthwhile movie about family coming together in adversity, and the life-affirming power of music.
First, a word of warning to sensitive souls. (And this may be why more people haven’t watched this film.) You deserve to have someone supportive on hand to watch this with you, or to talk with after. That’s if you’ve lost your Mom or Dad or both, or if your parents were disappointed at how you turned out, or if they didn’t have the bandwidth for closure, or if they lived with dementia and any of the possible accompanying ailments, or if you are left behind to work hard on sorting out what happened, and the meaning of it all, and what’s left, and where you go from here.
With all that said, we get to go join the Campbells on their sofa.
Mr. Glen Campbell and Mrs. Kim Campbell are tucked in together, enjoying old home movies. Here’s a young man with a toddler, a young man hitting a golf shot and then leaping with joy, a young man playing in the snow with a young woman.
On the sofa, Glen is fascinated by it all, reciting the Zen koan “Who is that??” in curious eagerness. It looks like a comforting ritual where the best-loved things of the past are back with us, always amazing and always fresh and new.
Kim gladly gives him the good news, key after key to the whole mystery: the child is your daughter; the young woman was your second wife for 16 years; the young man is you.
“Me??” he exclaims happily. “All right — I’ll be me!”
The film cuts to Glen’s wonderful guitar work on the Mason Williams song “Classical Gas,” with a rapid visual of his many many lifetime achievements and publicity shots. It’s an eye- and ear-catching treat for his decades of fans, culminating at its peak with…
Glen all alone, in a white corridor, talking to himself like Donald Duck.
“Is there no END to this man’s talent?” he quacks.
“Is there no beginning?” Kim quips right back, forging along up ahead, leading the way to an office.
Glen has just released his new album, “Ghost on the Canvas.” He is committed to promoting the record for several weeks of tours.
But first they are here in the white hallway, at the Mayo Clinic. Clinicians spare not one iota of distraction over their patient’s celebrity status or his constant jokes. They smile kindly at his patter and charm, but they are brisk and efficient and concerned, preparing for his brain scan testing. Then he is left alone to sit quietly in an exam room. Without an audience, he drops the joking and sings to himself. But the lyrics seem to be melting together; he has to improvise them as he goes.
Across the room, Kim’s voice floats over and laces in with his, gently placing the right words in their places.
Glen is pleased. “You sing it,” he urges. When she takes the lead in the song, he can relax and close his eyes.
Then the brain scans are ready, and their neurologist has some questions to ask.
What year is this?
What time of year — spring, summer, fall, winter?
What year were you born? (Glen correctly names “1936,” but then changes his answer.)
How old are you? (Kim slips him a musical hint, gently humming the phrase “SEVENTY SIX trombones led the big parade.” He looks puzzled.)
Who was the first president?
Where are you, and why? What kind of place is this?
The doctor gives him four words: “apple,” “Mr. Johnson,” “charity,” and “tunnel.” Can he repeat them back?
Kim watches with a resolute smile and widening eyes.
Glen cheerfully brushes aside the questions, explaining that he does not need to know all those excess details; when something comes along which is genuinely important, why “Then I take care of it!”
The doctor explains gently that this test, combined with the brain scans and their view of a shrinking hippocampus, indicate that Glen’s memory issues are caused by Alzheimer’s.
Glen is amazed; he’d been thinking that by discarding peripheral memory details, he was acting responsibly — cleaning house to make room for what matters most. (There is some truth to this. As we grow older, there is a priority shift away from keeping up with surrounding distractions, toward the preservation of memories which carry more meaning.)
What to do now?
Glen and his family make two remarkable decisions. They will make his diagnosis public. And, they will try to go on with the five-week tour.
They start by preparing for an opening performance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, supported by a backup band including Glen’s two sons and daughter, and managed in every detail by Kim. Glen however spends rehearsal time grabbing instruments away from others to give pointers on how to play, or insisting on new key and tempo arrangements. On “The Tonight Show” stage, minutes before the show begins, Kim instructs Glen to stay within a marked circle on the floor, because otherwise he will be out of camera range. “NO!” he replies, wandering nervously around the studio. “I will stand anywhere I want!”
The show begins; at the sound of applause, Glen lights up and bursts into song perfectly on cue. In a casual manner, he saunters at ease on the stage, staying exactly within the circle and finishing the song with relaxed masterful aplomb. The audience is overjoyed.
The audience remains overjoyed — for 151 sold out concerts, in 18 months across America. It’s a musical feat that has other celebrity musicians in awe. How does he do it? The medical team is equally mystified: Glen’s tests show continuing brain decline; the doctors can’t fathom how he is still able to perform at all. One neurologist ponders an intriguing possibility: functions no longer performed by the damaged part of Glen’s brain may have been taken over in a “spreading effect” by the brain areas responsible for music — areas innately strong and powerfully developed from a lifetime of constant practice. Can it be, that extraordinary musical ability and muscle memory is compensating for and even restoring some aspects of his quality of life, at least for a while?
During filming, there was apparently some criticism that the family were putting Glen on display for money or their own fame; but the best response to that is the obvious joy he finds in performing. Even for someone who never followed Glen Campbell’s work, the concert scenes are a pleasure — sterling finesse and ardent best efforts and humorous warmth. The sound of cheering, and the visual cue of audience members waving and standing to applaud, activates such positive stimulus in Glen’s mind that he has to shake his head and stroke it before playing. During “Try a Little Kindness,” relying upon a teleprompter for his lyrics, he delights listeners by reading his own cue out loud: “Glen! Play long guitar solo here!” then dutifully attacking the solo to a blazing finish. When encouraged by audience applause after a song, he obligingly starts the song over again; the audience doesn’t mind at all. One staunch supporter makes the point that if Glen wants to sing “Wichita Lineman” twice, why not let him? (“Who gives a rat’s ass?”) When a backstage fan expresses ardent homage, Glen shows the same signature charm that he would to any fan, who in this case is Paul McCartney. At one point Glen wants to introduce the band to the audience, but realizes to his dismay that this task would involve remembering the names of his own children. (Daughter Ashley salvages the moment and his feelings, assuring Dad that the band will take care of the introductions later.) But when Ashley steps forward and plays the opening notes of “Dueling Banjoes,” Glen leaps in with guitar and superbly honed sense of musical synergy; the two of them are off and flying in a beautiful feat of call and response, a communion far deeper than the memory of names.
Any caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s may see all these good times and feel regrets, thinking “Isn’t there more I could have done for Dad? What if I’d played chess with him all day, or helped him make his paper hats, or whatever gave him joy? Would he have lived longer too? Would I have made him happy?”
But not every Dad (or Mom) has a lifetime of focused flat-out effort on his life gift, doing what he loves best. Not everyone has developed an inner island of competence which is so well liked and welcomed. Not everyone has the capable fully supportive spouse sharing the same strong religious faith and sense of humor and physical attraction (Perhaps Kim’s own training with the Radio City Rockettes helped fuel her impressive stamina, precision, and responsiveness.). Not everyone has grown children who can dedicate 18 months of their lives full time. Not everyone has the worldwide support and high esteem, the money, the youthful physical fitness, the top-of-the-line medical team, the ingrained social charm and showmanship, the unbeatably confident determined light-hearted attitude. Not every person with dementia gets to stay in their home for as long as Glen did. Not all can live in a familiar tour bus, with the same loyal bus operator husband-wife team of 30 years, traveling with familiar favorite people and rehearsing familiar music with them all day long, surrounded by unconditional love. (During one clip of speeches about the extent of Alzheimer’s and the need for more research funding, my movie partner drew on her family caregiver experience to remark how nice it would be, if some of those millions in medical research money could be spent on basic care, respite activities, therapy, and amenities for quality of life.)
With respect and dignity for its subject, the film still spells out in calm plain terms the milestones of Glen’s affliction and its impact on the family. Kim is calmly frank with the doctor, mentioning the effect on their marriage, and her accommodations to his increasing resistance to everyday personal tasks. (As one of the 1,000 workarounds used by caregivers, Kim figures out that Glen’s resistance to taking showers is motivated in good part by hypersensitivity to cold; to coax him into the bathroom she uses a hair dryer to provide comforting warmth during the process.) Glen as the young man leaping for joy on the golf course becomes Glen who relies upon the game as a supportive ritual with a long-term trusted golf partner, then becomes Glen needing his golf partner to choose the correct club for him. Weeks later Glen is swinging a golf club in self-defense, shouting at his family, accusing the golf partner of stealing all his clubs (Kim patiently points out to him over and over that all the clubs are right there in plain sight — at Glen’s bedside, where he arranged them himself.). Glen quips at one point that he has cried, and he has laughed — and that “laughing is a hell of a lot better”; but when asked whether he ever feels blue, his face melts into profound sadness. “Yes,” he admits. And he sits speechless and wide-eyed beside Ashley as she speaks to Congress about Alzheimer funding, sharing her sorrow that to her father, any day, she will be no one and mean nothing. (Ashley later worked her grief into this beautiful tribute song Ashley Campbell – Remembering (Single Version))
The tour ends with Glen’s performance at his Lifetime Achievement Award. Next day, asked about the event, he can name without hesitation which song he performed; but he isn’t able to answer what the event was, or what people were doing there. By the end of the film, he is no longer able to understand any spoken words, to follow any conversation about any topic. But in the closing scene, in the studio with his old team of musicians of the Wrecking Crew, he can still sing the haunting tribute to Kim, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”
After the time recorded in the film, Glen lived for years, passing away at the age of 81. There is no film about the circumstances which forced the Campbells to finally place him in memory care, or about how hard that path was for Glen and his family. The caregivers who watch the movie can probably imagine it for themselves.
Beautifully packaged in uplifting concert footage, this is a gentle respectful portrayal of courageous people who love each other, joining forces and finding gladness in small moments on the valiant little tour bus of their lives. Much more than a musical tribute, “I’ll Be Me” tackles a much greater task. As pointed out in the film, the story is meant to break barriers of isolation and sorrow, to let families living with Alzheimer’s feel seen and heard and appreciated, to know that wherever the path may lead, they are not touring all alone.