In anticipation of the upcoming 2015 Toronto Hot Docs International Festival of Documentary Cinema, herewith is Greg Klymkiw's review of James Keach's poignant and powerful feature documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me which details the effects of Alzheimer's Disease upon the legendary country and western star as he embarks upon a farewell tour. Released in Canada via VSC, the film is now playing at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and opening in Vancouver May 11, 2015 at the VanCity with further playdates to follow.
Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me (2014)
Dir. James Keach
Starring: Glen Campbell, Kim Campbell, Ashley Campbell, Cal Campbell, Shannon Campbell, Jay Leno, John Carter Cash, Sheryl Crow, Steve Martin, Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Bruce Springsteen
There's always the debate in one's mind with documentary cinema as to the balance and/or separation between "artistry" and "subject matter". Some films within the genre work in spite of less-than-exemplary artistic/stylistic vision when the subject matter is so compelling that it supersedes all aesthetic considerations. Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me could almost fall squarely into this critical rumination, but the fact that it is a fairly straightforward document of extraordinary events, still allows it worthy consideration as solid, if not genuinely great filmmaking. The fact that director James Keach expertly focuses upon the task at hand is hardly a reason to dismiss the picture as art of a very high order. Besides, not every documentary film can, should and/or will be Malik Bandjellou's Searching for Sugar Man. Keach's powerful and poignant work, in spite (or because) of its veracity, delivers the goods and then some.
It doesn't get more harrowing, touching, uplifting and yes, even downright entertaining than this. When the legendary country and western star Glen Campbell was diagnosed with the extreme progression of dementia known as Alzheimer's Disease (wherein memories eventually fade to less-than-zero), he not only recorded new material, but embarked upon what would, even under normal circumstances be a gruelling Farewell Concert Tour. He also agreed to allow actor-director James Keach unfettered access to virtually every aspect of this undertaking and, in fact, his life. The desire was, on one hand, for Campbell to surround himself with family, friends and colleagues to do what he loved doing best, and on the other, to provide an important document of the effects of the disease so that the film, album and tour could be an important tool in creating far more support for the research necessary to attack this horrendous disease.
The resulting film will not only appeal to Campbell's multitude of fans, but anyone and everyone who has either suffered with the debilitating effects of the disease upon loved ones, but the general populace at large. The film succeeds more than admirably in all these respects; it's a tremendous concert picture and behind-the-scenes look at mounting this challenging event in the face of a horrendous affliction.
Utilizing concert footage, new interviews, sequences at home and in clinics, plus a choice selection of archival footage, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me succeeds as one of the best documentaries about the creative process ever made.
We see intimate sequences with Campbell and his gorgeous, devoted wife Kim, watching home movie footage in which he continually expresses confusion as to what and whom he's watching while she patiently reminds him of what these key events in his personal and professional life are. There is an astonishing visit to Washington, D.C. wherein Campbell and his smart, total-babe and mega-talented daughter present a plea for more federal funding of Alzheimer's research. There are two very sweet interviews - one with Steve Martin recounting his experiences as a junior writer on the hit TV variety series "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" and the other with Bruce Springsteen, not only extolling Campbell's artistic virtues, but revealing his own personal experiences with seeing close loved ones being afflicted with Alzheimer's. One of the most alternately moving and hilarious moments is when Paul McCartney visits Campbell backstage to tell him how much he loves him while Campbell looks at the former Beatle with a bemusedly blank expression as in, "Who is this guy, again?" and essentially, though very politely regarding McCartney, as if he were some anonymous member of the singer's humungous public fan base.
It's the music, however, that soars and even more extraordinary are the words of shock from any number of leading doctors in the field of Alzheimer's as they express how someone at Campbell's juncture in the disease should not be so skilled and downright brilliant when he's on stage performing live. Campbell transforms from the addled, befuddled old man backstage and at home into a graceful senior practitioner of musicianship when facing adoring audiences. Campbell does prove to be "un-rehearsable", a bit too chatty and occasionally confused when the cue cards for lyrics are not where he expects them to be. Not that these matter to the live audiences captured on film, nor for that matter to us as we're watching the movie - they all seem an integral part of Campbell's appeal, showmanship and unwavering joy in performing.
And damn! Sometimes it's easy to forget what an astounding guitar player, entertainer and songwriter Campbell was and, certainly during the time of the film's shooting, still is. Campbell even displays a common tic amongst Alzheimer's patients when they're feeding on positive sensory vibes and once it's identified as such, we're even more moved and transported to a kind of grace when we see it as he performs. (One of the most astonishing and heartrending scenes has Campbell on guitar performing "Duelling Banjos" with his brilliant, radiant daughter Ashley on banjo - star Daddy and star-in-the-making Daughter - it's pure movie magic.)
Yes, this is a straightforward document, but as such, it's an ideal and skilful approach to material which needs no stylistic directorial flourishes, but rather showcases a filmmaker intent upon capturing rare truths. My hat is off to James Keach for his unerring, unwavering eye.
What a wonderful picture. I'm so glad it exists and look forward to seeing it again and again.
So too, will you.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me is a VSC release currently playing at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, to be followed by added playdates across Canada including the VanCity Theatre in Vancouver.