EXCLUSIVE: Best Actress front-runner Julianne Moore playing a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice has been drawing the lion’s share of attention to that mind-robbing disease this awards season, but it’s a fictional character. There is another Alzheimer’s-related Oscar story that is even more compelling — because it’s real, as one of this year’s most recognizable nominees is deep into his own battle with the horrible disease.
Country superstar Glen Campbell, now living in a facility in Nashville and suffering from an advancing case of Alzheimer’s, received his first Oscar nomination for the remarkable song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from the documentary Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me, which chronicles his final concert tour as the disease closed in on him. The song, serving as a goodbye to his loved ones, wryly and knowingly gets to the heart of what it’s like to suffer from this debilitating and heartbreaking illness and is becoming an anthem of sorts in the Alzheimer’s community. And it’s going far beyond that as well, having just won a Best Country Song Grammy for Campbell and co-writer Julian Raymond on Sunday night. (Check out the song and scenes from the film in the featurette below.)
Campbell himself — in good health but not able to engage in conversation anymore — is not fully aware of the love, acclaim and awards attention coming his way this one last time, but it is an extraordinary outpouring of affection and should make for a very dramatic Oscar moment when Tim McGraw takes the stage to perform it. “I am honored to be asked to sing this powerful song from one of the true legends of the music industry,” McGraw said. This is not Campbell’s first encounter with the Oscars. In 1970, he appeared on the show to sing his hit “True Grit ,” the title song from the film in which he made his acting debut opposite John Wayne (who won the Academy Award for Best Actor). But Campbell was not personally nominated, as he is this year, because that song was written by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black. He also sang other nominated tunes on the 1971 and 1973 Academy Awards.
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” was written for the documentary, directed by James Keach, which followed Campbell on a farewell tour. The film depicts the impact of Alzheimer’s as it slowly tightens its grip. Campbell and his family offered complete access to the filmmakers in a no-holds-barred look at the effect of it, not only on the person who suffers from it but also on his family and friends. In fact, one Oscar voter sent me an unsolicited email earlier this week after watching the movie. It read: “That Glen Campbell doc is ten times more effective than Still Alice at getting into the horrors of Alzheimer’s. Wow.”
The song only heightens the poignancy of this story. That’s undoubtedly why the music branch chose to nominate it. Here’s a sample of the lyrics: 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. I’m never gonna hold you like I did. Or say I love you to the kids. You’re never gonna see it in my eye. It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry. I’m never gonna know what you go through. And all the things I say or do. All the hurt and all the pain. One thing selfishly remains. I’m not gonna miss you.
The sequence in the film where Campbell is reunited in the recording studio with The Wrecking Crew, the group of legendary musicians with whom he played on so many classic recordings in the 1950s and ’60s, is particularly touching as they lay down the tracks for what would turn out to be Campbell’s last song ever. He won’t be attending the Oscars with his family, but hopefully he’ll somehow be aware of this major moment in his career. Hal Blaine — the legendary drummer and charter member of The Wrecking Crew who played on literally hundreds of Grammy winners including six consecutive Record Of The Year winners — was a part of that session for the film. “He sang beautifully. He played beautifully,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “I’m not sure he knew who we were. I wasn’t positive if he did, but Glen never stopped smiling like, ‘Yeah, I remember.’ But I don’t think he did. He was just playing with us. It was like old times. We wanted Glen to feel the love, that we are still with him and around him. Still the same guys. I hope and pray for the best. I want everyone to vote. I never dreamed something like this could happen. I am praying for him to grab the award. What a way to end a career.”
Raymond, who produced Campbell’s last two records for Capitol, explained how during his final album, Ghost On The Canvas, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “We knew this was a problem,” he told me. “It was twice as hard to deal with in getting stuff done. He was just further along. I spoke with my friend James Keach while we were making this record and told him it was a pretty amazing situation. ‘He’s such a great guy and has such an amazing legacy, but everyone has kind of forgotten about him’, I said. But I told him these records are starting to bring him back, people are discovering The Wrecking Crew. There was definitely something there.”
As for the collaboration on “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”, Raymond says he would take notes on stuff Campbell would say about his situation, lines like, “you’re not going to miss anyone anyway.” He says all those comments in the song are very much him, very much his sense of humor. Then Raymond showed Campbell the music and taught him the melody. “I knew what he liked to sing and how to do it. It was an unusual songwriting process, but that title just inspired the song. He just loved being in the studio. It was very emotional for the other guys. It was a magical day you wouldn’t trade for anything. The thing that makes me most happy is the awareness it is bringing to Alzheimer’s and what those patients have ahead of them.” Raymond says he sees Campbell about once every three weeks at the Nashville facility. He says he will give you a hug, he eats well and is in good health but doesn’t really respond to conversation anymore.
Although no one was dreaming of Grammys or Oscars at the time, Keach — who also was involved in another musical film, the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line — told me he knew when he first heard the song, and then filmed it, that it would have a major impact. “First of all, dramatically, I thought this was one of the most poignant, powerful songs I ever heard,” he said. “It’s a love song. It’s got the comedy of Glen, but at the same time it’s got the truth of what he’s going through and the demise he is facing. Lyrics so often don’t go dark and deep in this way. And yet he didn’t feel it was dark. He felt like it was more, ‘Don’t worry about me. I am going to be OK.’ When we filmed it, I had a camera in my hand and tears rolling down my face. The thing that was also just heroic about it was that he could only do a couple of lines at a time. He wasn’t like the old Glen Campbell recording a whole song. He would struggle to sing it, and he wanted to sing it. And it was so important to him to finish it and get it done. He kept looking at us and signaling, ‘Did I do that OK? Was it OK?’ “
With an Oscar nomination and a fresh Grammy win, it’s more than “OK,” Glen.
Here’s the song, along with scenes from the film.