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A Moving Documentary About the Search for an Alzheimer's Cure

'Turning Point' shines light on drug researchers' determination

James Keach, 72, is an actor (Walk the Line, Ray Donovan) with family chops: His brother, Stacy Keach, was his teacher, in fact, at the Yale School of Drama. But this Keach is even better known as a documentarian who found a specific success directing films about Alzheimer's, including his 2014 film about Glen Campbell's battle with the disease. On World Alzheimer's Day, Sept. 21, Keach unveiled Turning Point, his new documentary about the researchers racing for an Alzheimer's cure at Eli Lilly, which backed the film. (Keach retained editorial power.) Bill Gates, who also supported the film, cited the researchers’ determination, “even in the face of setbacks,” as a true inspiration. Here, James Keach talks with AARP about how he got the story behind Turning Point.

What's so important about Turning Point?

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Nearly 6 million people now have Alzheimer's, and there is nothing to stop it. I realize we're in terrible times with the pandemic right now, but this is the tsunami that's on its way. In 2050, 1 in 2 of us will have Alzheimer's.

RELATED: Catch up on the latest Alzheimer's news by reading AARP's Disrupt Dementia page

Did you know about the disease when you made the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, which won a Grammy Award and an Oscar nomination?

I didn't know anything about it really. I just knew it was bad. Glen's producer was producing my musician son, and he invited us to shoot five of Glen's [farewell tour] shows. That turned into 171 shows — two and a half years of shooting. So I got to see Alzheimer's up close, and what it did to this beautiful family. I also got to see also the best part of human nature — when Glen would forget the words, audiences would finish the songs by singing out the lyrics. It became a very moving part of my life.

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spinner image Glen Campbell performing on stage with his guitar in the documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
Glen Campbell
Area 23a/Courtesy Everett Collection

And how did that lead to the new film?

Great Films About Alzheimer’s

Glen Campbell: I’m Still Me (2014)

A musical landmark and an emotional journey, James Keach’s documentary captures the gift and personality of the “Wichita Lineman” star on his last concert tour.

The Father (2020)

Anthony Hopkins takes you inside the mind of a man whose sometimes scrambled mind is playing increasingly sinister games with him.

Iris (2001)

Jim Broadbent won the Oscar for playing the husband of novelist Iris Murdoch, and Judi Dench and Kate Winslet got nominations playing Murdoch in her youth and in her old age with dementia, respectively.

Still Mine (2012)

James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold are powerfully affecting as a man and his wife, who’s descending gradually into the illness.

Still Alice (2015)

Julianne Moore won the Oscar for playing a linguistics professor who gets early-onset Alzheimer’s and struggles to keep her family bonds together, along with her mind.

Away From Her (2006)

Both the star, Julie Christie, and the film’s writer-director Sarah Polley earned Oscar nominations for this drama about a couple married for 44 years and stricken with the illness.

[Chicago Sun-Times film critic] Richard Roeper did a big I'll Be Me screening in Chicago. Folks from Eli Lilly came down to see it and invited me to show it to them in Indianapolis. I thought, a Big Pharma company — this is the home of the devil! But I went to a restaurant there, and when I told the waitress I was screening a film at Eli Lilly, she said: “Oh, they saved my grandmother's life — she's got diabetes.” And all of a sudden I had a completely different perspective. It's a wake-up call to what these companies are about. They've spent billions of dollars looking for an Alzheimer's cure.

The technical side of the research is fascinating, but was there a personal side to meeting the scientists on the front lines of dementia research?

I asked each person I interviewed, “Do your family members have Alzheimer's?” I was blown away by how many did, and they're on a mission to help them. I met Patrick May on his last day at work — he was retiring after 40 years. He was working on a drug — thought it was gonna work — and right in the middle of the phase 3 clinical trial, his wife passed away suddenly. And then his father came down with Alzheimer's. And then the drug failed. I said to him, “It would be like me making a film for 30 years and nobody ever seeing it — and yet you keep coming back.” He said, “That's what we do, and someday we'll find it."

It's like baseball: If you strike out seven times out of 10, you're [still] in the hall of fame.

Is there any hope in Alzheimer's research?

The drug aducanumab failed halfway through their clinical phase 3 trial. The stock dove. And then about six months later, they said, “Wait a second — this maybe seems to be working!” So now, it looks like there's real hope on the horizon. There's also a blood test on the horizon that may be able to diagnose Alzheimer's earlier, at younger ages. And in the digital world, they're using watches and iPhones to pick up early signs of impairment, like when a guy suddenly isn't balancing his bank accounts the way he used to. So these guys are on it. They're throwing everything they can at it, because it's very, very serious.

Why did you make Turning Point?

The most important thing is connecting with the stories, the emotional journey that these folks were on: the scientists, the business guys, the statisticians, the families, all the people suffering from Alzheimer's and sharing their story. The whole idea of making these films is to take the shame out of the game. And to make people aware that this isn't something that happens to other people. Guess what? It's happening to us. You or me — one of us is going to get some kind of dementia. We should struggle together as a community. That's where the hope lies.

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