Six years before Glen Campbell died, at the age of 81, the world learned that this beloved country music star had Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis was made in front of a camera for a documentary called “I’ll Be Me.” So many conflicting feelings arise in the watching of this movie. It is a valuable glimpse into end-stage Alzheimer’s. At the same time one has to wonder how Campbell really felt about allowing such intimate observation of his final decline. Would he have consented before the disease started to steal his mind?
Scenes from a farewell tour are intercut with visits to the neurologist. We smile at Campbell’s charming deflections when he can’t remember what the date is, or who the first President of the United States was. Campbell tells the doctor he doesn’t need to know the words he was asked to remember seconds earlier—he’s moved on past that moment. Even though he cannot recognize himself in a home movie from his younger days, he is still able to deploy his exquisite singing voice and guitar chops onstage.
The neurologist says it’s possible that a deep engagement with music is ultimately what holds Campbell together. Beyond his ability to keep performing in front of an audience, it may be that his musicality helped to organize his brain more generally. This hypothesis is supported by the observations made by music therapists working with people who have Alzheimer’s.
As the film progresses, we see Campbell’s charm give way to paranoid, angry outbursts. He struggles to get through “Dueling Banjos.” It is painful to watch him struggle in concert, especially at the end of the tour. But one of the most excruciating moments occurs in the doctor’s office, when his neurologist says he is increasing Campbell’s dosage of Aricept, and that he may expect some improvement in his memory.
“I’ve been trying to get rid of it for the past 40 years,” Campbell says without hesitating. It may be one of his most lucid perceptions in the film. It’s almost as if he welcomes the disease as a better alternative to the alcohol and drugs he abused so that he might forget the pain of his life.