The real name of Glen Campbell’s 2014 road show was the rather bland “Goodbye Tour.” But nothing was bland about the farewell road show itself. At a point when Glen Campbell was seriously demented, he could still perform songs he had written decades earlier—a musical version of “muscle memory,” the ability to do something without conscious thought because he had done it for so long.
When I found the DVD of I’ll Be Me at my library, I thought that I would be viewing a biopic, not a documentary. The entire film is an examination of Campbell’s dementia and his music. And this DVD might have been a first, a celebrity in his last years letting the world into his most private moments, preserved. He was 78 when he was diagnosed, but he also showed stamina—How many performers in their late seventies have the endurance to perform 151 performances at that age?
As the Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday commented at the time, “What’s so bracing about this documentary is the filmmaker goes into the dark recesses of his psyche as Alzheimer’s continues to colonize his brain.” And the camera doesn’t just capture the inspiring moments, as when viewers can sense the camaraderie among the many family members when they are on the road. But this is not The Sound of Music. Campbell’s dementia is the unifying theme.
One of Campbell’s daughters was fearful that something was going to go very wrong. And why not? By the time the tour commenced, not long after his diagnosis, Campbell was quite demented. He couldn’t always identify his family members. Nor could he tie his shoelaces. And his wife simply commented, “It’s really hard.” At one point, Campbell pronounced, “I’m the chieftain here,” to the discontent of his family members, a sign that he was becoming overbearing. Bill Maclay, the tour manager, suggested that the audience was expecting a stock car race, not a concert, and they were expecting to see a crash. At one point, the teleprompter went off, leaving Campbell untethered from the script of his performance, and calling loudly for the people in the control booth to get it working again. And during rehearsals, his daughter expressed fear that her dad would embarrass himself.
When the teleprompter was working, Campbell stepped up to the microphone and stated into it, “Play solo guitar,” not realizing that those were directions, not the lines he was expected to deliver. Yet, somehow, Campbell, with a lot of loved ones and staffers, managed to maintain what might have ended in a debacle. The voice, though diminished, was still there. So was the showmanship. Most of all, he was still able to sing, and play his guitar, entertaining tens of thousands of his fans. He also managed to make a wan joke: “I go into the kitchen to get something. Then I said, ‘Now why did I come in here for? I stopped that. I stopped going into the kitchen.”
But as the documentary advanced, Campbell began showing a surly side, almost certainly attributable to his worsening condition and the stress of the tour. And there was an infantile quality to some of Campbell’s actions, such as when he was shown eating a dish of ice cream, the way a very young child would do it, intent on consuming everything that was still in the cup with his tongue.Country music’s èminence grise died roughly three years after he was diagnosed. I imagine that those last years were not much fun for him or his loved ones. But this documentary is likely to be in circulation for a long time. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand the later stages of Alzheimer’s, a place no one wants to go.