Memory, identity and love

James Keach, Kim Campbell and Ashley Campbell on Alzheimer's disease and documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me director James Keach with our host Cynthia McFadden
Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me director James Keach with our host Cynthia McFadden Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

James Keach, producer of James Mangold's Walk The Line, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, joined Kim Campbell and Ashley Campbell at the Bryant Park Hotel for a screening and discussion of Keach's film Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.

Bill Clinton, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Steve Martin, Vincent Gil, The Edge, Jay Leno, Jimmy Webb and Brad Paisley are among those who pay tribute to Glen Campbell, as he and his family embarked on a farewell tour following Glen being diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

James Keach with moderator Anne-Katrin Titze: "I said okay, we'll meet Glen next week and turned around and looked at everything I could on Alzheimer."
James Keach with moderator Anne-Katrin Titze: "I said okay, we'll meet Glen next week and turned around and looked at everything I could on Alzheimer." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Cynthia McFadden, senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News introduced the evening.

Cynthia McFadden: Sadly, if this topic [Alzheimer's disease] hasn't touched your own life in some way yet, sad to say, statistics suggest it will. So it's a movie I think all of us have a stake in. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me is much more than a concert film. During my conversation at the Bryant Park Hotel screening room, James Keach, Glen's wife Kim and his daughter Ashley revealed the journey they have taken that goes far beyond the promotion of a new album and tour for a Country Music Hall of Fame and Grammy Lifetime Achievement honouree.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let me start with the ending. The very last line Glen says is 'I'm glad I ran into you - or did you run into me?' So my question to you is, how did you run into each other? And [to Kim and Ashley Campbell] how difficult was the decision to say, 'okay, we are not only doing this tour but we're having somebody follow us around to the hospital, family reunions and more'?

Kim Campbell: Glen had just finished that album we talked about, Ghost On The Canvas. And we were ready to go out and promote it when we got the diagnosis. Glen's producer Julian Raymond was friends with James Keach and was working with his son, Johnny Keach, on some music. And so he brought us over to meet James. You tell the rest.

James Keach: My partner and I, we've been out filming Cheap Trick and I had all the cameras. My son Johnny was 14. And Julian was producing. Julian had known that I made a movie called Walk the Line a few years ago, so I had a feeling for, perhaps, musicians. This was a really tough thing to do. This is about Alzheimer. I didn't know anything about Alzheimer at the time other than it scared the hell out of me. Julian prevailed and said 'you've got to meet Glen.'

Kim Campbell and James Keach following the post screening discussion of Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
Kim Campbell and James Keach following the post screening discussion of Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

So after a few months of him going on and on about it, he said 'come on, man, it won't cost you much money and you already have the cameras.' I said okay, we'll meet Glen next week and turned around and looked at everything I could on Alzheimer. And, man, it was like slitting your wrist with a butter knife! It was bad. Everything we saw that had been filmed was really really dark. And there was no face to it. They always got the person at the end, it was always the endgame.

And then Glen walked in and here comes Johnny across the living room and he has his guitar in his hand. And [Glen] goes, 'hey, I play the guitar. You want me to show you stuff?' And Johnny goes 'sure, show me something.' Glen picks up the guitar and just strums it. And then he looks at this one here [he nods at Kim] and says 'A man who finds a good woman, finds a good thing. I found me a good thing.' He is immediately making us feel really comfortable. And Kim says, you know, 'you have Alzheimer.'

And he goes, 'I do not. What is that? I have part-timers.' So immediately he was able to talk about it, and he was self-deprecating and charming. So we got to see the whole thing - we got to see the guy totally in love with his wife who's got a great sense of humor, who plays the hell out of a guitar but in the early stages of Alzheimer. We figured, this is going to last five weeks. We didn't think the tour would last two and a half years, 151 shows. Here we are.

AKT: I think you have one of the most brilliant beginnings. It includes everything the film is ultimately about. Memory, identity and love. Can you talk a little bit about finding this moment, when you, Kim, are describing to [your husband the images on screen he is seeing of himself]. 'That's you,' you are saying and again 'that's you.'

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me poster
Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me poster

James Keach: When we were seven or eight months into it, I kept saying to Kim, 'do you have any films of Glen when he was young?' Then they delivered to my house this very large box. The Campbells have been filming their family stuff for years and years. So I had everything from Super 8 to Hi-8 to 16 and three-quarters to Beta. We decided that we would put all the films together. Make a film for Glen to watch. We wanted to see how much he remembered of his life. Instead of saying, what do you remember, we showed it to him. And asked 'who is that?'

And Kim said 'that's you.' I think this is true with Walk The Line, too. Very few people knew who Johnny Cash was under the age of 40. It's hard to believe it now. The same with this one. The whole title sequence is set out to establish in the minds of people who didn't know who he was who he was and remind people who did know who he was to remember who he was. So that we know who he is now and where he has come from - to have a contrast.

AKT: We, people who don't know who he was learn who he was with him together, which is what makes this so fascinating. The last thing I expected from this film was that I would get fashion tips from Glen. I really loved this dog collar and I also liked his placemat skirt. Did Glen come up with any more fashion tips that we could use?

Kim Campbell: Well, actually that collar is really comfortable. Ashley and I tried it on. I have a picture of him where he is doing his black pants and a black turtleneck and he has this black beanie that he'd wear on his head. It has that little tip on top that sticks out and I call him 'Bank Robber Glen'.

 Bryant Park Hotel in New York City
Bryant Park Hotel in New York City

Following my conversation, I turned it over to the invited audience, who asked questions on Glen's ability to sing and play the guitar when he had such difficulty remembering and what bringing awareness to the day-to-day struggles means for the future.

Kim Campbell: It's mysterious to all of us, like a miracle, really. Backstage and in hotel rooms getting ready to do the shows, he'd be in the throes of Alzheimer's. 'We have a show tonight?' 'Yes, we do.' 'What time is it?' 'Seven o'clock.' Two seconds later: 'We have a show tonight?' and on and on and on. Any distraction could be really rattling to him. I kept thinking, how is he going to go on stage and do a show? But it was just miraculous.

When the lights came up it was like automatic pilot. It was something he didn't have to think about. Lyrics, he … I was so worried at the Grammys because he never did see that teleprompter way out in the middle of the room. That was another miracle that he remembered, for the most part the lyrics to Rhinestone Cowboy. We chose that because it was one of the most simple songs for him to remember. The music just came from somewhere in his soul. [She turns to her daughter Ashley] You're a musician, you can talk about that.

Ashley Campbell: I was just thinking about it. The guitar playing, for him, he is so comfortable with it. He's been doing the solos for so long, it's like brushing his teeth.

Kim Campbell: Well, today, he struggles with his toothbrush. I might hand him a toothbrush today and he might try to brush his hair with it. That's the progression of the illness.

Anne-Katrin Titze: How is Glen doing today?

Kim Campbell: Physically he is really healthy and active but he lost his ability to carry on conversations. He speaks mostly in a word-soup. Words really don't relate to each other. He can still say short sentences, like I love you.

Ashley Campbell [on her father's daily form during the concert tour]: It was very random. During the Napa show there was a big decline. Two nights before that we were in Portland or Seattle and both of them were flawless.

James Keach: Once he got into the right key, he was flawless.

Ashley Campbell: He only heard low frequencies. He would hear a base where none of us could. Sometimes he would have trouble hearing what I'd said to him because my voice is female and higher [Ashley and Shannon Campbell performed with their father]. Off stage, when I really wanted to get something across to him, I would say it in a very low voice. And he would hear it.

James Keach: We put a human face on a subject that for twenty years or longer has been knowingly diagnosed. This is really really serious. The politicians [in the film's section titled Mr. Campbell goes to Washington] weren't kidding around. By the year 2050, 150 million people are going to have this worldwide if we don't slow it down. All we want to do is create as much awareness as possible.

We are not going to find a cure for Glen but we can restore and lift up the caregivers. Here is this guy at his most vulnerable and most audiences tend to be cynical. In this case, they gave him standing ovation after standing ovation and cheered him on. So what if he wanted to sing Wichita Lineman twice? Who gives a rat's ass!

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me is one of the 134 documentaries submitted for the 87th Academy Awards short list.

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