Glen Campbell, filmmakers show strength in making Alzheimer’s documentary

Spoiler alert. There’s a scene near the end of the 1969 western “True Grit” in which John Wayne’s character, U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, is trapped in a pit with Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross, with no apparent way out after sidekick Texas Ranger LaBouef, played by Glen Campbell, is mortally injured by a rock-wielding bad guy up above. Cogburn laments the situation, but then LaBouef appears at the opening of the pit. “I ain't dead yet, you bushwhacker,” he yells down to Cogburn. And then, astride a horse and holding the other end of the rope grasped below by Cogburn, LaBouef pulls his friends up to safety before dying.

I was reminded of this scene on Sunday as I attended the screening of “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” the new documentary about Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, its effect on his family, and the concert tour they mounted in 2011 and 2012 in conjunction with the release of the actor and entertainer’s last album, after he had made public his presumed diagnosis. Before the film began at the LeadingAge annual meeting, director/producer James Keach told those of us in the audience that Campbell “was told to hang up his guitar, and he said, ‘I ain’t done yet, and I’m going to let the world see the gnarly truth.’ ”

For the next 116 minutes, those of us in that Nashville Music City Center ballroom saw it. Medical visits, Campbell with his family at home and in hotels on the road, the tour over which his disease gradually progressed, and one last time in the recording studio, all intermingled with clips from Campbell’s past and interviews with famous musicians, politicians and others. (The documentary’s title, by the way, derives from a scene in which Glen and his wife, Kim, are watching home movies of Glen’s life. When Kim explains to Glen that a film is going to be made about him, he replies: “I’ll be me.”)

“This is a film we were asked to do but were reluctant to do,” Keach said, explaining that he and producer Trevor Albert initially felt uneasy about documenting Campbell’s vulnerabilities. The filmmakers expected the process to last the five and a half weeks of the planned concert tour, Keach said, but the experience lasted two and a half years as the tour grew to 151 dates played to enthusiastic fans.

Campbell was able to perform for an extended period even as the disease increasingly robbed him of other cognitive abilities. But the performing, one of his doctors maintains, most likely slowed the disease process.

The entertainer moved through stages 2 to 4 of the disease during filming, his wife has said. Along the way, Keach said, he “taught us to live in the moment, have faith, love family and laugh.” And now, even as Campbell resides in a memory care community with stage 6 Alzheimer’s, according to his wife, the film about him carries on the mission he started.

Changing the lives of caregivers

“This film is going to change the lives of caregivers and, hopefully, find a cure,” Keach said, invoking the title of another movie by describing the documentary as “ ‘Rocky’ with a guitar.” The documentary also addresses the need for more funding for dementia research.

LeadingAge President and CEO Larry Minnix said he believes the Oct. 19 LeadingAge screening is the largest one to date, with tickets purchased by more than 4,000 people (tickets were included as part of full paid registration to the annual meeting of not-for-profit aging services providers, and additional tickets were sold for $95 each as well). The documentary was a highlight of the meeting for many.

The filmmakers “had no idea what kind of hoopla we’d be creating in a meeting like this,” Minnix told members of the press the next day. ‘They’ve been wowed probably as much as we’ve been,” he added, noting that this is the first formal involvement the national association has had with the entertainment industry. LeadingAge, the filmmakers and the film’s other supporters now are trying to leverage the interest, he said.

Additional showings are planned throughout the country (you can see dates at the film’s website). LeadingAge members and what Minnix referred to as “sympathetic partners” also will be holding screenings of the film across the United States, and LeadingAge invites its state-level affiliates and others to arrange for viewings—or, alternatively, buy all of the tickets for one night at a theater at which the film already is scheduled to be shown—and include panel discussions and other activities to spread the word about individual, family, organizational and societal struggles related to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The documentary’s effects will extend beyond the theaters in which the film is shown, however.

"What Magic Johnson did for AIDS, we hope Glen will do for Alzheimer's." James Keach“This project has turned into something bigger for us,” Keach said, announcing the formation of the I’ll Be Me Alzheimer's Foundation at the LeadingAge screening. The charity will aim to restore the spirit of caregivers, collect funds for a cure and create events to raise funds for those in need, he said.

Also, the excess footage from shooting—Keach said the filmmakers accumulated more than 1,300 hours of footage for what ended up being a two-hour documentary—contains many “teachable moments” that will be used to educate senior housing and services providers’ staff members and generate discussion among physicians, direct caregivers and family members of those with dementia, Minnix said. “We think the whole thing has a lot of legs to it,” he told members of the press Oct. 20. The organization will be announcing specific plans in the coming weeks, he added.

The fight for caregiver support and a cure for Alzheimer's isn't done yet, but people like Glen Campbell, his family and the makers and supporters of this film are joining those previously in the depths of battle, inching us along out of harm’s way. And that takes true grit.

Click the image (left) to see photographs I took at the star-studded documentary screening event at the LeadingAge annual meeting. Watch the official trailer for the film below.


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Topics: Advocacy , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Executive Leadership