As I write this, musician Glen Campbell is at a nursing care facility in Tennessee, where medical staff are ensuring that his last days on Earth are as good as they can be. Campbell has Alzheimer’s disease, which is attacking his brain and – stage by stage – robbing him of his capacity to function. In 2011, after announcing that he had Alzheimer’s, Campbell went on a farewell music tour and – volleying among fits of confusion, anger and normalcy – performed the hits that, for 50 years, have burnished his reputation as one of America’s most acclaimed singers. Campbell is 78.
A new documentary about that cross-country tour, Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me, opens in the Bay Area on Friday, November 14. It’s an inside look at those concerts and all the behind-the-scenes doings, and an intimate look at Campbell's struggle with the most rudimentary actions. What’s the name of his longtime wife? Campbell can’t remember, even as his wife, Kimberly Woolen, is inches away. Campbell sees footage of himself as a younger man and can’t recognize himself. “Oh,” he says when Woolen tells him.
“Oh.” That’s what Glen Campbell – the All-American man with the timeless cadence rooted in Arkansas – has become: a confused two-letter utterance. It’s painful to watch the stars of your childhood descend into physical hell. The stars of previous generations never allowed themselves to be filmed at their most fragile. In 1939, when Lou Gehrig announced that he was quitting baseball because of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, he walked away from the spotlight. Gehrig didn't let cameras shadow him as he deteriorated toward death over the next two years.
But there’s a tremendous upside to seeing Campbell in Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me. The documentary humanizes the star, and personalizes the last stages of a disease for which there is no cure. Alzheimer’s is a death sentence. In a pop culture that lionizes youth and good looks and worships veteran stars who somehow (plastic surgery, great genes, etc.) hold on to those looks, Campbell is an anomaly. One of a growing number, actually. Just this year, film critic Roger Ebert was the subject of the documentary Life Itself, which detailed – in excruciatingly candid footage – his battle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. At the end of his life, Ebert’s lower jaw was grossly distorted as doctors raced to save his life. They didn’t succeed, but Ebert maintained his dignity till the last days of his life. We get to see that in Life Itself.
In Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me, the dignity is there when Campbell thanks the filmmakers for following him through the good moments and bad, and when his family supports him onstage and off, even as they experience his temper tantrums. During the filming, Campbell seems capable of violence – against his family and himself. By the time we see the last concert, in Napa, Campbell’s wife and manager decide to shut down the tour because the singer is almost incapable of performing a whole concert. The applause from the concerts sustained the musician. Teleprompters fed him all the lines he had to sing, and told him when to play solo parts. His ability to sing was so ingrained in his brain that – despite losing lucidness – he could still get on stage and act like the old Glen Campbell.
It was that Glen Campbell that, in the late 1960s, appeared on the TV in my childhood home in San Francisco. My mother, who was raised in Baltimore, loved his smooth, folksy voice and soulful songs about love and heartbreak – like his 1967 tune "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", and his 1968 hit "Wichita Lineman". Jimmy Webb wrote both those songs, and he lionizes Campbell in the documentary. As a boy growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was rock, soul, funk, and disco that showered me from my peers’ culture. My mother’s culture brought me Glen Campbell, Harry Belafonte, Dinah Shore, and Lawrence Welk. I didn’t really appreciate their songs then. And I don’t actively listen to them now – except for Campbell’s. His songs hold up, and the searing love and heartbreak that he channels in them are now my love and heartbreak, too. You feel it in your head and in your gut. Which is why a group like R.E.M. performed Campbell’s hits in concert for new generations of music lovers. And why Bruce Springsteen will say – as he does in Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me – that he always admired Campbell: “Beautiful singing voice. Pure tone. And the simple presentation. He’s never fancy . . . wasn’t singing all over the place. Simple on the surface. But there was a world of emotion underneath.”
It takes getting older to appreciate Glen Campbell, and I’ve entered yet a new realm of appreciation for him after seeing the documentary. Glen Campbell and his family took a big risk in agreeing to being filmed. Instead of singing about pain and suffering, Campbell is living it. The film touches on his longtime drinking problems. We don’t see the booking photo from his 2003 drunk-driving arrest, where he stares menacingly into the camera, but that Campbell is also present in Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me. He isn’t pretending in the film. What we see is what we get.
“Who was the first president of the United States?” a doctor asks Campbell. “My goodness,” Campbell says, “I don’t know.” “I’d like you to remember four words,” the doctor says. “Apple, Mister Johnson, dharity, and tunnel. Can you give them back to me now?” Campbell: “No, I have no use for them now.”
Campbell was always good at interpreting other songwriters’ words. On his own, he had less success. And now, most of those words aren’t there either. Campbell can still say, “I love you.” He can still laugh and still be physical with others. His spirit is still in his body. But he needs round-the-clock attention. That’s why he’s in a nursing care facility in Tennessee. And why Campbell’s fans everywhere – including the Bay Area – will see Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me, and walk away knowing it’s the last good look they’ll have of him before his death in the months or years ahead.
Glen Campbell . . . I’ll Be Me opens in the Bay Area on Friday, November 14, 2014. For more information, go to glencampbellmovie.com.