I recently watched I’ll Be Me, the powerful documentary chronicling music legend Glen Campbell’s 2011 tour and simultaneous walk into the dark night of Alzheimer’s disease.
Not only was it brave for Campbell to hit the road for 151 shows as his condition worsened but it was incredible that his family was with him — on the bus, onstage and at every other point along the way. The film documents the entire family’s struggle, as well as that of Campbell’s road crew, who day by day watch the great man become ever more distant.
There are several scenes in I’ll Be Me that are difficult viewing. The cameras were given unflinching access to the challenges of keeping a show on the road whose key component was, at best, unpredictable. It is ironic that the one who seems to be sweating the details the least is Campbell.
If you’re of a certain age and demographic, Glen Campbell’s voice is quite familiar. My mother had some of his records and played them often. Some of his songs are in my marrow.
As a young person becoming aware of the world, you often know things before they have practical use in your life. One day, something that’s been with you for a long time just falls into place and is now an active ingredient.
One of the first adult realizations I had — that so much of human action is bound to fail, that a lot of life is denial, and that we tell ourselves all kinds of things to get through the night — came to me from listening to Glen Campbell through my mother’s speakers.
I remember her playing Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb. As brief as the lyric is, about a man who is very alone, Campbell is able, with his incredible voice and phrasing, to paint an entire picture of longing, isolation and the pain of a man whose loneliness stretches as long as the wires that disappear into the great distance.
The weight, beauty and sadness of the lyric, and the way Campbell carries it — even when you don’t really get it, simply from not having any time in the adult world, you get it. Years later, you really get it. It hits you like a truck, just how amazing Campbell was at making a song more than a song. It’s the same way Sinatra can hold you in a lyric, making you forget to breathe. You live the words as he’s singing them. Glen Campbell was able to do this again and again.
In I’ll Be Me, the viewer learns just how truly talented Campbell was — and still is. Not only was the younger Campbell in complete control of his voice but he also was a wicked instrumentalist who turned up on some ultra-heavyweight sessions. In old footage, Campbell effortlessly rips guitar solos that are not only melodically colossal but technically perfect. The thing that is almost maddening about it all is that he makes it look so easy. The man was a 100 percent natural.
Proof of this unbelievable level of talent comes in I’ll Be Me’s preshow footage of Campbell struggling with everyday tasks — one of the ravages of Alzheimer’s — then appearing onstage in one sold-out show after another, playing with ease, surrounded by his excellent band, some of whom are family members. His daughter Ashley has that same seemingly effortless, blazing skill. Then, after the show, it is back to the ever-increasing dysfunction, as Campbell’s condition worsens.
Campbell, family and crew battle back as best they can with humor, love and the music, which seems to be the stabilizing constant. The audiences were well aware of the man’s condition and knew what they were in for. On some nights, it was clearly their great affection for him that made the shows possible.
Glen Campbell was able to deliver an almost Trojan horse of heaviness in his interpretation of a lyric. A perfect example is the great Larry Weiss song “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It is a willful negation of life’s hollowness, acknowledging that everything is often a sham, a painted-over dream that fooled the last guy and will now fool you — but you sign up for it anyway. You start out nice but realize that was just naive stupidity. You’ll never make that mistake again, and in surviving, you have to give a lot of yourself away.
It would be hard to find someone who couldn’t see an aspect of themselves in the lyrics of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but it’s the way Campbell sings it that makes you see it. That’s talent you can’t explain. I challenge any other singer to make that song hit like Campbell does.
The music of Glen Campbell has sold more than 40 million copies and no doubt will continue to be heard. You don’t shift that many records by being merely a good-looking man with some great songs. You have to move people. You have to make music that is as absolute as humanity itself. This is what Campbell did consistently for more than half a century.
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While I’ll Be Me is damn sad in parts, it ultimately documents the complete triumph of Glen Campbell. Alzheimer’s is a terrifying, confusing and humiliating disease, to which we outsiders can only bear witness. But as powerful as it is, it will never define Glen Campbell. He wins at life. Completely.
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