CNN presents the television debut of the feature-film documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me Sunday at 9/8CT.
Glen Campbell’s music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents played his LPs on the weekends and gave me change to play “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle On My Mind” on the jukebox at the local bowling alley and supper clubs. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was required family viewing — and a very good time, indeed. And as I got a little older, my friends and I bellowed Campbell’s crossover hits “Southern Nights” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” as we walked home after school. I still know — and love — every word and every note.
In 2011, Campbell had a brand-new record release, Ghost on the Canvas, and a companion tour in the offing when he and his family got devastating news: Campbell’s forgetfulness and frequent mood swings were caused by Alzheimer’s disease, the progressive form of dementia that currently affects more than 5 million people in the U.S. alone. He went public with the news. His fans wondered what would happen next. The answer was nothing short of stunning.
Campbell’s musical collaborator, Julian Raymond, reached out to actor/producer James Keach, who had coproduced the critically acclaimed Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, and asked him to consider a unique idea. “I said, ‘I don’t know that we’re going to do another biopic,’” Keach recalls, “and he said, ‘No, that’s not what this is. This is his last tour. He’s got Alzheimer’s. It’s only going to be five weeks. At least just meet Glen. Just meet him.’”
Keach agreed and in an afternoon at his home that he remembers warmly, he discovered a man at peace with his fate, enraptured with his wife, Kim, and every bit of the musician he had always been. The pair agreed to a documentary that would not only chronicle Glen’s legendary career and final tour, but also turn a hopeful but unblinking eye on the effects of the disease and the desperate need for a cure. The resulting film, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, weaves revealing glimpses into the Campbells’ increasingly complex personal life with exhilarating, sometimes poignant footage of the “Goodbye Tour” that stretched from five weeks to 151 sold-out shows as generations of Campbell fans flocked to see their hero, backed by three of his own talented, protective children.
“James probably told you that they watched every video they could about Alzheimer’s,” says Kim, “and they were all so depressing and dark and sad and hopeless. But when they met Glen, he was so up and positive and just full of life and joy — and so talented — that they decided to do it. We just had no idea it would last so long.”
For Campbell and his family, both the tour and the chance to put an encouraging, public face on the Alzheimer’s experience quickly became good medicine, expanding the Campbell clan to include Keach and his crew and enthusiastic audiences across the nation — and showing the world that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not the end of the road. Not by a long shot.
“It became the most important thing in Glen’s life, making this documentary,” Kim continues. “There were a couple of times when we were out on the road and the film crew was not with us and he would say, ‘Why are we out here? We need to be back at home with those guys, filming — that’s what’s important; that’s what we need to be doing.’ He just really wanted to shine the light on Alzheimer’s and let people know what it was like.”
Keach says he and his production partner Trevor Albert knew they would frame the film on the tour. Then they let the story tell itself based on the remarkable people — and musical performances — they had in front of the camera. People that include a veritable who’s who of music superstars — Bruce Springsteen, Kathy Mattea, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and others — revealing Campbell’s influence on their careers, and oftentimes their personal connections to Alzheimer’s.
“Glen certainly is the focus of the movie, but the stars of the movie are the caregivers — and that even includes the audience as they lift him up,” Keach says. “It was so beautiful to watch.”
“Glen is now in stage six,” Kim reveals. “He’s lost most of his ability to communicate verbally. But he’s still Glen Campbell. He still has the same spark, the twinkle in his eye. And he’s got a sense of humor. He’ll begin to tell us a joke and even though the words don’t really connect in the right way and there may be some gibberish involved, you can tell he’s telling a joke. It cracks him up. He just starts laughing, and then it makes us laugh. And then it brings him so much joy that he made us laugh.”
Though much has been written about Glen’s move to a Nashville care facility, most caregivers and loved ones of Alzheimer’s patients are well aware that managing the emotional and physical toll of the disease — on everyone involved — is a 24/7 job. A solid support network is critical.
“Glen is in a memory support community here in Nashville, really close to my house,” Kim explains. “I didn’t cease being a caregiver; I just increased my team. I’m there every day that I’m in Nashville, and I’m still actively involved in dressing him and making sure he has his teeth brushed. Things that normal people take for granted. And the people who are his neighbors there are sweet, wonderful people. There are doctors and lawyers and teachers — Alzheimer’s happens to every kind of person — and I really enjoy getting to know them, and knowing their stories and meeting and supporting their families, because we’re going through the same thing. It is heartbreaking, but I fall in love with all of these people and I’m enjoying being a part of their lives as well. I just want people to know that there are great options out there. You don’t have to do it alone.”
Kim adds that while Campbell’s musical skills have now mostly succumbed to the effects of the disease, “ultimately, that’s not who you are, and Glen covers that in the song that he and Julian wrote [the 2015 Best Country Song Grammy winner], ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You.’ Playing guitar and all that, that’s not what matters. It’s the love that you have in your life — and we still have that.”
Indeed, love is the sturdy backbone of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me — even after the cameras stopped rolling.
“How many families get to have all that time to spend together? We were on a bus together for a year and a half,” Kim says. “And for the kids to perform with their dad — even having Alzheimer’s, he’s one of the best guitar players in the world, so they were able to learn so much from him professionally at the same time. So that was a blessing. But to have the documentary out and to be going around the country and meeting so many other people experiencing the same thing has been an amazing experience for us. They’re giving us support at the same time as they feel like we’re telling their story. And that’s helping them to cope with what they’re going through. It’s just been a blessing all the way around.”
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me airs Sunday, June 28, at 9/8CT on CNN. Click here to learn more about the I’ll Be Me Alzheimer’s Fund or make a donation.