The courage of Glen Campbell

Story highlights

  • Director James Keach: 77-year-old Glen Campbell took the risk of touring despite Alzheimer's diagnosis
  • His courage inspired those around him, including the filmmakers, Keach says

James Keach is a producer and the director of "Glen Campbell ... I'll Be Me," which airs Saturday, November 7, at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Who would have thought a 77-year-old man with Alzheimer's would make a music video, win a Grammy for best country song and be nominated for an Academy Award? This is the legacy of the inimitable Glen Campbell.

Directing and producing "Glen Campbell ... I'll Be Me" changed my life and that of my producing partner, Trevor Albert.
    Julian Raymond, who had produced Glen's past two albums, asked us in the summer of 2011 to do a short film documenting Glen's final five-week tour, which would promote his new (and last) album, "Ghost on the Canvas."
    Glen had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and his family and management team were worried about sharing this news. Glen and his wife, Kim, knew it was risky to go public with the diagnosis and for Glen to perform live while showing growing signs of the disease.
    James Keach
    Glen wanted to tell his story and not shy away from the reality he was facing.
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    The Campbells learned that millions were coping with the fatal disease (5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's; every 68 seconds, someone new is diagnosed). Glen was showing increasing signs of dementia, but he loved the stage and hoped to keep performing as long as he could.
    Julian told the Campbells that I had produced a movie about Johnny Cash, "Walk the Line," and that Trevor had produced great upbeat movies such as "Groundhog Day."
    He stressed that we could be trusted to protect Glen's dignity. That said, Trevor and I were very reluctant to make the film. All the other films we had seen about people with Alzheimer's were dark, depressing and tough to get an audience for. Julian insisted that we all get together and discuss it in person.
    We were excited about the idea of meeting meet Glen and his family, having always loved his music and country-boy humor, but we really didn't want to lead the Campbells on. We told Julian to make sure they knew we might not do the film. Then we met the Campbells.
    It didn't matter how bleak we had found the other movies that addressed Alzheimer's. With the Campbells, we knew immediately that we could make a unique film on the subject -- one with music, laughter and faith -- that would show Glen's beautiful and caring family encouraging him to sing and entertain and embrace life even as his disease progressed.
    Glen and Kim were still playful and in love after 30 years of marriage, and music filled their lives. Our decision was an instant YES.
    Kim was and is devoted to Glen, and we quickly recognized that she was one of the strongest, most compassionate and most level-headed examples around of the millions of caregivers who support loved ones every day. Their children, Ashley, Cal and Shannon, were cut from the same cloth. They all knew that what we were doing made Glen and the family vulnerable, but they wanted to do it because Glen wanted to do it.
    Glen asked us to do a movie that showed the gnarly truth. He knew what he had and what he faced. Glen, calling the illness "part timers," announced "I ain't done yet!" and responded the opposite of a person given the news he had a disease that would take his mind, his memory and eventually his life. He wanted to sing, laugh and celebrate life until it was taken from him.
    We thought the tour would last a few months at most. Glen was able to defy all the odds and perform 151 shows over a two-and-a-half-year period.
    The highs far outweighed the lows, but there were lows. Everywhere we went Glen radiated love and light, and even in the dark times of his confusion, he always showed signs of his true self. He was surrounded by loving family and fans who lifted him up when he was at his most exposed.
    After 151 shows, the disease had taken its toll and Glen and his family decided he should take his final bow. But the movie will allow generations to come to appreciate Glen's incredible courage, talent and spirit.
    We have come a long way from being reluctant filmmakers to starting a fund to help those suffering. Along with the Volunteers of America, we have now formed the I'll Be Me Alzheimer's Fund (IBMAF.org) to raise money to find a cure, restore the spirit of the caregiver and bring media attention to the Alzheimer's tsunami that we are all facing.
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    It is so profoundly sad to see a person lose the memory of their life and family. Taking the journey with Glen and his family will forever be one the most important personal experiences and films of my career. He was our teacher on how to face life on life's terms. He was and is a true hero.
    Glen risked compromising his image by doing this movie and showing Alzheimer's up-close and personal. No celebrity or family has been quite so public about the effect of Alzheimer's. The Campbells' courage and honesty has allowed millions of caregivers and those suffering from the disease to be seen and understood as never before in an uplifting and inspirational way.
    We offer unending gratitude to the Campbell family.