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No Shame: Glen Campbell Documentary Follows Singer's Goodbye Tour

In 2011, Glen Campbell announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. (Courtesy of the artist)

Anyone old enough to remember the 1960s and '70s is old enough to remember Glen Campbell.

The guitar-playing, country-music-singing pop star had a string of huge hit songs, a network TV variety show and a movie part in True Grit with John Wayne. Now, he has Alzheimer's. The truth is, these days we remember a lot more about the "Rhinestone Cowboy" and the "Wichita Lineman" of Campbell's heyday than he does.

A new documentary called I'll Be Me by filmmaker James Keach follows Campbell on the farewell tour of concerts Campbell played with his children, even as the disease was advancing.

In a particularly striking moment in the film, Campbell is playing at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville when the TelePrompTer that he used throughout the tour to remember his own lyrics goes out. Campbell transforms what could have been a disastrous moment into a light one, joking about his own forgetfulness.

"Well, you know, Glen took everything in stride and the audience, you know, just picked up on that," Campbell's wife Kim Campbell tells NPR's Robert Seigel. "And they didn't care. They were there to cheer him on."

And while Campbell may have needed prompting on the lyrics, the music, Kim Campbell says, came naturally.

"Music has always just flowed out of him from some inner source," she says. "It's miraculous, really, because he doesn't think about what he's gonna play. It just flows out of him. And it continued to flow out of him throughout the whole tour."

The Campbell family has used Glen's illness as a platform to campaign for better Alzheimer's research. Keach says he hopes the film will provide another type of service to those affected by the disease: helping to doing away with some of the taboos surrounding Alzheimer's.

"Glen went out there and he didn't have shame for having Alzheimer's," Keach says. "When I would say to people — 'Hey, Glen. How's the Alzheimer's coming along?' When I first said it, people would look at me, like 'What are you doing, man? You don't talk about... The guy's got Alzheimer's.' I said, 'Exactly. Why are we making the movie?' ... We would ask him things like, 'So what's it like to forget stuff?' And he'd go, 'It sucks. It sucks.' And then he'd joke about it. And by the time he was done with the joking and regaling what he'd forgotten, he felt safe and everybody else felt safe, and it was an opportunity for the elephant to be in the room and to be okay with it, which is what we hope the movie will do for people. They'll feel seen. They'll feel empowered. They'll feel uplifted. And they'll understand what many of us are going through in this world."

Hear the rest of the conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you know the year? What year is this?

GLEN CAMPBELL: What was that one - 1870? Something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. No, no, no, no.

G. CAMPBELL: (Laughter).

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The country music star Glen Campbell took this test a couple of years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How old are you now?

G. CAMPBELL: I don't know. How old am I?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Humming "76 Trombones").

G. CAMPBELL: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Campbell, a guitarist and singer, had a string of hit songs in the 1960s and '70s. He had a network TV variety show, a movie part in "True Grit" with John Wayne. Now Glen Campbell has Alzheimer's. And the truth is these days, we remember a lot more about the rhinestone cowboy and the Wichita lineman of Campbell's heyday than he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd like you to try to remember four words, OK? I'm going to give you four words. You try remember them now.

G. CAMPBELL: If, and, and but is my big one.

SIEGEL: This is Campbell and his wife, Kim, at the Mayo Clinic. It's a scene from a new documentary called "Glen Campbell; I'll Be Me." It's about his Alzheimer's and the farewell tour of concerts Campbell played with his children, even as the disease was advancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mr. Johnson.

G. CAMPBELL: Mr. Johnson.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Charity.

G. CAMPBELL: Charity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And tunnel.

G. CAMPBELL: And tunnel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. Can you give those back to me now?

G. CAMPBELL: No, I have no use for it now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. Any of them?

G. CAMPBELL: (Laughter) I already passed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They're gone already. OK.

G. CAMPBELL: I can play guitar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Director James Keach and Kim Campbell, welcome to the program.

KIM CAMPBELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Kim, we just heard you there.

K. CAMPBELL: Yes.

SIEGEL: You were taking part in that interview. And it's a stunning scene where we're witnessing Glen Campbell's loss of memory, but not his loss of a sense of humor. That's - what an odd condition he was in at that moment.

K. CAMPBELL: That's just the way he's always been. He's always had just a great sense of humor and loves to laugh.

JAMES KEACH: He was - in fact, when we were doing that, he would call it part-timers. He made light of it, even when he was given the diagnosis.

SIEGEL: James Keach, you have to describe what you filmed here. It's both an intimate documentary about Glen Campbell and his family - his wife, his children - and a musician's tour around the country.

KEACH: Yes. It certainly was a tour. My partner, Trevor Albert, and I set out to try and find a light in a very dark space. And as soon as we met Glenn and Kim, the light turned on. I mean, they said, Glenn has announced he's got Alzheimer's. A few years before, I'd made a movie called "Walk The Line," and they thought, oh, gee, you understand about making musical bios. Well, I don't necessarily know how to make a bio about a guy with Alzheimer's, and we were very reluctant to do it. And we thought, well, it's five weeks, and then it turned into 151 shows. And this is Rocky with a guitar.

And the thing that's really cool is that the audience becomes this character in the film that lifts this man up at his most vulnerable. They rally around him, and there's a lot of comedy in it. And that's Glenn, you know? Glenn's funny.

SIEGEL: Here's a part of the film in which Glenn is playing at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. They had a few nights. It was a hugely important stop on the tour, and it starts out with a complete train wreck.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

G. CAMPBELL: (Singing) Just knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk. And (mumbling) - you got a thing on here?

SIEGEL: The teleprompter went out.

KEACH: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

G. CAMPBELL: Now, what is that? You have to turn one of those things on me 'cause I forgot everything I learned.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: And the show goes on. I mean, Kim Campbell, were people at that moment thinking maybe this wasn't such a great idea - this tour?

K. CAMPBELL: Well, you know, Glenn took everything in stride and the audience, you know, just pick up on that same attitude. And they didn't care. They were there to cheer him on.

SIEGEL: He needed the teleprompter for the lyrics, but he's playing. I mean, he remembers the music. And if the teleprompter said play solo, Glenn, he would then say play solo, Glenn. He would read it off the teleprompter during this.

KEACH: He did. He would read, Glenn play solo (laughter), and then he'd start doing it. It was awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

G. CAMPBELL: I'll play one now.

(GUITAR SOLO)

KEACH: When we started the film we were focused on how could this guy go play music with Alzheimer's? And he didn't have shame for having Alzheimer's. When I would say hey Glenn, how's the Alzheimer's coming along - when I first said it, people look at me like, what are you doing man? You don't talk about - the guy has got Alzheimer's. I said, exactly. Why are we making the movie?

So we would ask him things like so what's it like to forget stuff? And he's go it sucks. It sucks. And then he'd joke about it. And by the time he was done with the joking and regaling what he'd forgotten, he felt safe, and everybody else felt safe, and it was an opportunity for the elephant to be in the room and to be OK with it.

SIEGEL: He's playing with his kids. Is it fair to say that he would have had trouble naming his children on stage when he was performing and crediting who the musicians were?

KEACH: I don't think he could have. He would go that's my baby girl. He would say that all the time. And he'd look over at Cal, the drummer, and he'd kind of cock his head. He always knew that they were his children and that they were part of him and that he loved them, but not by name.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

G. CAMPBELL: My darling...

ASHLEY CAMPBELL: Introduce me, dad.

G. CAMPBELL: Huh?

A. CAMPBELL: Introduce me.

G. CAMPBELL: I have. I've got it right here.

(LAUGHTER)

G. CAMPBELL: I had to write it down or you would have got it first.

A. CAMPBELL: You're funny.

SIEGEL: Kim Campbell, he has at home with you one - in the movie, at least - one full throated tantrum.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

K. CAMPBELL: What you need to do is go to the dentist down the street and have him fix it.

G. CAMPBELL: No. And I ain't going to do it either.

SIEGEL: Was that the one tantrum he had during that year and whatever, or was that a much more common occurrence?

K. CAMPBELL: It was a more common occurrence. There were some really dark places, you know, and experiences that we had.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME")

K. CAMPBELL: You just had a knife in your mouth on the bus a few minutes ago.

G. CAMPBELL: I did not.

K. CAMPBELL: Yes, you did.

G. CAMPBELL: (Unintelligible).

K. CAMPBELL: But that's the nature of this disease. They can become very agitated. They can hallucinate. So it's a balancing act that caregivers have to, you know, dance to keep everybody happy and everything even keel and redirect them if they begin to go off into kind of a dark area.

SIEGEL: He's now in a long-term care facility?

K. CAMPBELL: Yes.

SIEGEL: Does he play guitar while he's there?

K. CAMPBELL: Yes, he has two guitars in his room. He still doodles on them a little bit, and then there are so many great friends in the music industry in Nashville that come by to see him regularly and sit and play guitar for him, and then they'll hand it to him and he'll try to pick a little. You know, he still does pick it up every now and then.

KEACH: We went to see him last week, and he picked it up and he tuned it, and he still plays better than I do.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Glen Campbell can lose a lot of skill at the guitar and still play a lot better than most people who pick up a guitar.

K. CAMPBELL: Yeah.

KEACH: That's right.

SIEGEL: Well, Kim Campbell and director James Keach, thanks to both of you for talking with us today.

K. CAMPBELL: Thanks for having us.

KEACH: Really, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: James Keach's new documentary is called "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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