James Keach helms film about Glen Campbell’s Alzheimer’s struggle

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Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper will host a special screening event and Q&A Friday night at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage, with “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” director and co-producer James Keach, plus members of Campbell’s family, including his wife, Kim, and daughter Ashley Campbell. They are integral parts of the documentary, also showing at AMC River East 21 and AMC Northbrook Court 14.

Recently, I caught up with Keach to chat about the film that follows the famous country singer on his final concert tour after going public with the news he has Alzheimer’s disease.

Along with his long career as an actor and director, Keach also produced “Walk the Line,” the Johnny Cash biopic that won Reese Witherspoon the best actress Oscar. So when he was approached about doing a film about Glen Campbell, initially he was hesitant — until he learned that this would be a documentary and would showcase Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.

“That still made me very hesitant. It’s such a damn depressing subject,” said Keach, calling from his home. “As I said then, ‘I don’t see a lot of entertaining aspcts to this.’

“But then we went to meet Glen and that changed everything. It made me realize if we did this right — and we knew there were lots of pitfalls and it wouldn’t be easy — we knew we could make a film that would not be a train wreck. It has turned out to be a good ride. I’m very proud to have co-produced and directed this film.”

Related: Richard Roeper reviews “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”

What won over Keach was Campbell’s “infectious” joy, sense of humor and candor about his disease, “which he usually kept calling ‘Sometimers,’ ” said the filmmaker. “Glen is someone you can’t help but love right from the get-go. It’s a combination of his sense of humor, his self-deprecating way, his total desire to be open about all this — especially when we got started a couple of years ago.”

While Keach admitted he never dreamed what was expected to be a five- to six-week filming experience would turn into a two-and-a-half-year journey, he did say it was one of the highlights of his life, both personally and professionally.

It was difficult to watch Campbell struggle with memory issues and “at times, his constant repeating things and asking the same questions over and over could become tiresome. … But at the end of the day, it all made us realize how important it was to get this story out there,” said Keach.

When Keach started out, he knew little about Alzheimer’s. “But I did know we didn’t want to make a film that would become bogged down with only the disease. We wanted to show Glen’s bravery in facing up to this, and his honesty in dealing with it, but we also wanted to show what a phenomenal musical talent he was and continued to be as we filmed his final tour around the country.”

The film shows how Campbell’s family and band were often worried he’d forget words or “go off in some fashion, like walk to the edge of the stage and start talking to the audience,” said Keach. “That was OK. It made it all real. And the audiences were so central to all this. They were fantastic. Their love of Glen I think really comes through in the film, and he truly felt it.”

Keach shared a story about a conversation he had with The Edge from U2, one of many major musical stars, including Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, who are featured in “I’ll Be Me.”

“The Edge and I were talking about music and I asked him if he thought Glen was feeding off the audiences’ expressions of love for him,” said Keach. ” ‘Absolutely,’ said The Edge. ‘And it has nothing to do with him having Alzheimer’s — in a sense. As performers, we always have that connection with a live audience. It’s a conversation, I’m engaged in a conversation with all my audiences, and so is Glen.’

“It made me realize how important all that was for Glen. I am convinced that was what kept him engaged, focused, excited and stimulated. That audience vibe was what kept him from slipping down into the inevitable depths of Alzheimer’s sooner than he did,” said Keach, who added a sad footnote.

“Once the tour ended — and it had to because Glen was becoming more confused and agitated — he has gone downhill pretty fast.”

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