If you’re under 40, you’re too young to remember that it was Glen Campbell who made country music cool in the 1970s with melodic and melancholy pop-infused tunes such as “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.” Previously, in the 60s, he’d been a session musician who can be heard — although he wasn’t always credited — on some of the biggest and best known songs ever from artists including Bobby Darin, The Monkees, Nat King Cole, Phil Spector, and Elvis Presley. He was even a touring member of the Beach Boys in the mid 60s. His impact on American pop music is probably incalculable. And now, via documentarian James Keach (Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble), he has left us one final gift, a harrowing yet also inspiring portrait of coping with the rapid deterioration of Alzheimer’s, from both his own perspective and that of his family and friends.
The then 75-year-old Campbell was diagnosed just before he was set to kick off a farewell tour in 2011, and he went ahead with the tour anyway; Keach followed Campbell and his band (which features his three youngest adult children, all musicians themselves) on the road. Though it’s painful to see Campbell sometimes stumble through performances, it’s also remarkably encouraging to see how clinging to his life’s work and the joy of his music — as well as the adulation of his fans — helped him retain more of himself for longer than it was thought possible. (His doctors appear on camera to talk about how unusual and hopeful this was.) The stalwart humor of Campbell’s wife, Kim, seems like more than just her putting on a brave face; she comes across as a strikingly strong woman whom I’m not sure we would all find easy to emulate were we to find ourselves in her situation.
I’ve always liked Campbell’s music, but his final song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” — about his disease and recorded when he was already in the advanced stages, and now nominated for an Oscar for its appearance in this film — is so unbelievably sad (“You’re the last person I will love / You’re the last face I will recall / And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you / Not gonna miss you”) that I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to it again. There’s not much music with that kind of power, and there will be no more of it from Glen Campbell.