There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.
If you had asked me to tell you about Glen Campbell before I sat down with director James Keach’s 2014 documentaryI’ll Be Me, I would’ve been able to rattle off country classics “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “Gentle On My Mind” as examples of his rich horns-and-strings brand of golden-voiced pop. But other than those hits, I was a blank slate, ready to be educated by the documentary. Then came the opening sequence ofI’ll Be Me, where Campbell, his warm and gentle smile illuminated from flickering 8mm home movie footage projected on a wall, needs his wife Kim to tell him who each person is, and I realized that this was not going to be the sort of laudatory archive-exhuming documentary I had been expecting.
In the film, Campbell, as it had just been publicly announced when cameras started rolling in 2011, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Not only that, but he’s heading out on the road for what will be his farewell nationwide tour. My skepticism about this business decision kicked in during early scenes while I listened to Glen fail to answer questions from doctors about what day it is, the name of the current president, and which building he’s in. Was Glen being coerced into this tour as a shrewd and callous cash grab on the part of his family and record label? There’s some dramatic build-up featuring footage of chaotic rehearsals both at home and in dress rehearsal forThe Tonight Showthat lead me towards that possibility, but my pessimism immediately fell by the wayside once Campbell had an audience in front of him and his surprisingly still fine tuned instincts as an entertainer kicked in. While he never manages to fully shake the appearance of being at least a little bit disoriented, on stage, Glen is effervescently charming and funny and a more than capable musician. I was honestly shocked to see that Campbell was still able to absolutely shred his way through his guitar solos, even if he sometimes read the phrase “Glen plays long guitar solo” from his video prompter out loud right into the mic before getting down to business.
Further proof of the positives of performing come from Glen’s doctors (with inexplicably goofy haircuts, nearly one and all). The act of continuing to play music live is actually helping slow this degenerative disease down, even though the time it buys is still finite. The problem is that Alzheimer’s is much stronger than a song can ever be, and as the tour dates pile up (over a hundred tick by in a little counter at the bottom of the screen), Campbell visibly becomes less and less composed on stage and his banter between songs begins to stutter out in semi-coherent half-thoughts. It’s a deeply heartbreaking moment when one of Campbell’s sons remarks that Glen is totally unaware that he just walked off stage for the last time, but I was happy for everyone’s sake that it was over.
Part of the reason for going public with his diagnosis, and even more courageously following through with the live dates, sprang from an attempt on the part of everyone involved to increase awareness of Alzheimer’s and put a public face to it. To that end, the tour (and this film) are a great success. But with the moments of levity come devastating moments where the stark reality of how devastating the disease is and will continue to become upstages everything else. We watch as Campbell’s daughter, Ashley, chokes back tears when she tells a Congressional subcommittee about how heartbreaking it is that her father hardly knows who she is anymore. Later we witness Glen in a frustrated rage claims that people are stealing from him. It’s in these moments that the real weight of what’s coming down the road settle in. While there are bits of Campbell’s biography scattered throughout the film, and brief excerpts from interviews with big names like Bruce Springsteen, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Edge, and even Steve Martin among others, the soul ofI’ll Be Meis found in painting the portrait of this disease which has stolen a man not just from the world of music, but more importantly from his family.