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Glen Campbell gets his close-up on CNN: 'I'll Be Me' documentary review

Glen Campbell from "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me,"

Glen Campbell from "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me," the 2014 film on his struggle with Alzheimer's. It will repeat on Friday, July 3, 2015, on HLN, and Saturday, July 4 on CNN. Credit: PHC Films

Why all this fuss suddenly over Glen Campbell, star of one of the most viewed documentaries in recent cable history -- nearly three million viewers on CNN this past Sunday?

("Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me," the 2014 film, will repeated Friday on HLN and on CNN this Saturday night, at 9. Check it out after the fireworks).

We know why the fuss. We being anyone who has lived during the last 50 years, or once listened to his records, or watched his old TV music variety series, like "Shindig," (where he appeared often and well) or teared up -- maybe just a little -- when Rooster Cogburn pulled up that battered, beaten, shot-up Texas Ranger by the name of Laboeuf out of the snake pit in 1969's "True Grit."  "I ain't dead yet, you bushwhacker," said an indignant Laboeuf. But he would be.

These are the things, and so much more, that -- to paraphrase his song, "Gentle on My MInd" -- keep him firmly in the back roads (by the rivers) of our memory.

Campbell -- born 75 years ago, and from the Arkansas town of Delight (How perfect is that?) -- is suffering from Alzheimer's, yet still performs and performs well, as this Oscar nominee film by veteran director James Keach ("Walk the Line") establishes so beautifully and evocatively. That famous pitch is still nearly perfect, even if the voice quavers a bit. The words or lyrics occasionally fall away, so a teleprompter is essential.

But the hands move fast, and so do the guitar licks. Campbell's still got it, but the haunting unspoken refrain of this film -- which gives it an emotional wallop shaded with real sadness -- is just how much longer WILL he have it?

Kathy Mattea -- the great bluegrass singer from West Virginia -- hits on what I think is the most important aspect of this film: Campbell has "started a conversation," and parts of the conversation this film initiates go a little bit like this: What are the tangents holding human memory together, and at what point do those start to fray after dementia takes hold?

All victims of dementia are clearly not the same, but are there common elements or touchstones to this disease, which Campbell's battle may throw a light upon?

Music obviously is what's unique to his life experience and talent. The Edge says here that Campbell is stimulated, or parts of his mind and memory are, by the interaction with the audience during the various stops of his "farewell" tour.

Work then is therapeutic, but his doctor, Hart Cohen, says he is also "doing better than most people" at this stage because the part of his prefrontal cortex where musical memories are stored is clearly much larger than it was to begin with. While atrophy may have set in, it's taking longer to atrophy this part of his brain.

But the other part of the conversation to which Mattea refers is the notion of who we are: Do our memories make us? (That question is a key precept of science fiction, by the way.) And what of those memories? We certainly -- as humans --don't remember everything, but do we remember just enough to construct and maintain our personalities, and to maintain the connections to those around us?

And when they disintegrate, do those aspects of our being disintegrate with them?

Yes, those vital questions are raised within the context of this wonderful film, along with conversations. 

 But do watch -- again, Saturday at 9 p.m. -- if you have not yet done so. There's beauty here, and power. There's also memory -- ours. For many of us, Glen Campbell still very much lives on, as a happy and enduring memory from a violent and convulsive time. Watch and remember Campbell for what he was -- one of the great country crossover artists, with a voice that could break hearts. The kid from Delight still can.

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