Actor and filmmaker James Keach got a glimpse of how Glen Campbell might adjust to life at an Alzheimer’s care facility near Nashville on one of the singer and guitarist’s first visits there last year.
“As soon as he walked in, he spotted a guitar, picked it up and started playing for the other residents,” Keach, 66, said over lunch in Beverly Hills recently while discussing his new documentary, Glen Campbell ... I’ll Be Me, in theaters.
The film chronicles the Grammy Award-winning artist’s battle with Alzheimer’s and his family’s decision to take that struggle public in 2011.
“When he finished, everyone applauded,” Keach said, “and then Glen said, ‘I’d like to thank y’all for coming tonight!’” indicating that Campbell was well aware of the irony in his comment.
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Campbell’s condition sparked an outpouring of public support when he and his wife, Kim Woolen, made the announcement in an effort to educate the public about Alzheimer’s.
Keach, a producer of the Academy Award-winning 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, said he was initially reluctant to take on a documentary, given the downward trajectory Alzheimer’s typically takes. He’d been approached with the idea by music producer Julian Raymond, who worked with Campbell on his most recent studio albums, Meet Glen Campbell from 2008 and Ghost on the Canvas three years later.
“I told him I didn’t think I could do it, but he said, ‘Just come and meet with Glen,’” Keach recalled.
What he encountered was an upbeat man facing difficult circumstances with an unyielding sense of humor and resolve, bolstered by the talent that helped him sell more than 70 million records since he made the jump from in-demand Los Angeles studio musician to star in the 1960s and beyond.
Keach signed on, originally expecting to follow Campbell for five weeks on what was billed as a “Goodbye Tour” in 2011-12. The effort turned into months of filming not only concert performances but myriad aspects of Campbell’s life.
Keach interviewed family members, friends and admirers, including Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen and the Edge, as well as former President (and fellow Arkansan) Bill Clinton.
Far from being a dark portrait of physical and mental deterioration, I’ll Be Me captures audiences cheering Campbell even as he struggles to remember song lyrics or repeats jokes.
The film doesn’t flinch from the harsh realities of Alzheimer’s, showing Campbell losing his temper at times and frequently falling back on the jovial manner that made him an engaging star of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
“I got to know Johnny Cash at the end of his life, and when he made the Hurt video, he said, ‘I want people to see the ugly truth,’” Keach said. “I think what Glen is doing is the same — he’s being incredibly honest and vulnerable in putting himself out there this way.”
At one point late in the film, Keach is heard offscreen asking Campbell, “Are you ever blue?” and the audience finally sees the Rhinestone Cowboy singer let go with tears that often seem to be lurking not far beneath his smiling, joking persona.
Keach ultimately sees his film not as a tragedy. “So many people have been touched by this disease,” Keach said. “It’s a love story.”