Actor and filmmaker James Keach got a glimpse of how Glen Campbell might adjust to life at an Alzheimer's care facility near Nashville on one of the singer and guitarist's first visits there last year.
"As soon as he walked in, he spotted a guitar, picked it up and started playing for the other residents," Keach, 66, said over lunch in Beverly Hills recently while discussing his new documentary, "Glen Campbell … I'll Be Me." The film chronicles the Grammy Award-winning artist's battle with Alzheimer's and his family's decision to take that struggle public in 2011.
"When he finished, everyone applauded," Keach said, "and then Glen said, 'I'd like to thank y'all for coming tonight!'" indicating that Campbell was well aware of the irony in his comment.
Campbell's condition sparked an outpouring of public support when he and his wife, Kim Woolen, made the announcement in an effort to educate the public about Alzheimer's and to allow the country-pop star to continue performing as long as he was able during sometimes disjointed performances.
Keach, a producer of the Academy Award-winning 2005 Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line," said he was initially reluctant to take on a documentary, given the downward trajectory Alzheimer's typically takes.
He'd been approached with the idea by music producer Julian Raymond, who worked with Campbell on his most recent studio albums, "Meet Glen Campbell" from 2008 and "Ghost on the Canvas" three years later.
"I told him I didn't think I could do it, but he said, 'Just come and meet with Glen,'" Keach recalled.
What he encountered was an upbeat man facing difficult circumstances with an unyielding sense of humor and resolve, bolstered by the talent that helped him sell more than 70 million records since he made the jump from in-demand Los Angeles studio musician to star in the 1960s and beyond.
Keach signed on, originally expecting to follow Campbell for five weeks on what was billed as a "Goodbye Tour" in 2011-12. The effort turned into months of filming not only concert performances (Campbell played 151 shows before calling it quits) but myriad aspects of Campbell's life.
Keach interviewed a raft of family members, friends and admirers, including Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen and the Edge, as well as former President (and fellow Arkansan) Bill Clinton.
Far from being a dark portrait of physical and mental deterioration, "I'll Be Me" captures audiences cheering Campbell even as he struggles to remember song lyrics or repeats jokes during his time on stage.
It also follows Campbell and his wife as they meet with politicians in Washington to lobby for increased attention to what's projected to be an Alzheimer's epidemic by 2050 if effective treatment isn't developed.
The documentary shows doctor visits Campbell couldn't comprehend, sometimes testy rehearsals with his band, a 2012 trip to the Grammy Awards to perform and accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the occasional trek to the golf course that had long been another of his passions.
The film doesn't flinch from the harsh realities of Alzheimer's, showing Campbell losing his temper at times with loved ones and frequently falling back on the jovial manner that made him an engaging star of "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" variety series that ran on CBS from 1969-71.
"I got to know Johnny Cash at the end of his life, and when he made the 'Hurt' video, he said, 'I want people to see the ugly truth.'" Keach said. "I think what Glen is doing is the same — he's being incredibly honest and vulnerable in putting himself out there this way."
At one point late in the film, Keach is heard off-screen asking Campbell, "Are you ever blue?" and the audience finally sees the "Gentle on My Mind" and "Rhinestone Cowboy" singer let go with tears that often seem to be lurking not far beneath his smiling, joking persona.
In turn, it also portrays the joy Campbell has always received from music, and displays what seems to be an almost miraculous ability to play complex chord progressions and fills at the same time he's singing sometimes deeply poetic lyrics of writers including Jimmy Webb and Allen Toussaint.
The film closes with shots from what's being called Campbell's final recording session last year, during which he sang a new song "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" that powerfully expresses his love for those around him before the song's haunting tag line: "And best of all / I'm not gonna miss you."
When "I'll Be Me" was screened in April at the Nashville Film Festival, it was award the Grand Jury Prize. It's slated to start theatrical runs in Nashville and New York on Friday, followed by a Los Angeles engagement opening Nov. 14 along with screenings in more than 50 cities across the country.
Keach ultimately sees his film not as a tragedy.
"You see what this family goes through together for him, and with him. What I've found is so many people have been touched by this disease — someone's mother or father, a friend, an aunt or uncle,"" Keach said. "It's a love story."