The paeans come fast and furious in Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s documentary about legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. “If there was a Mount Rushmore in Canada, Gordon would be on it,” exclaims Tom Cochrane. “He is one of the greatest examples of timeless singer-songwriters,” says Rush’s Geddy Lee. “This is a guy who sang poems,” gushes Alec Baldwin, who seems to have been included in the proceedings simply because he’s a fan.
Fortunately, the octogenarian Lightfoot is also on hand to provide a less hagiographic perspective. “I guess I don’t like who I am,” the performer confesses. And when asked about his 1965 song “For Lovin’ Me” — which features such chauvinistic lyrics as “I ain’t the love you thought I’d be/I got a hundred more like you,” the performer admits, “I hate that fucking song.”
His thoughts tell quite a tale.
As its title indicates, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, being released in virtual cinemas, delivers an impressionistic portrait of its subject, loosely using his songs as a framework. Although far from comprehensive, the entertaining cinematic biography should well please the singer’s longtime fans, particularly those who have followed him through a career spanning six decades, and possibly make him some new ones.
The film chronicles Lightfoot’s life and career, from his childhood experiences as a choirboy to his making a name for himself as a folkie singer-songwriter in Toronto’s coffeehouses and clubs. After being signed to Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, he released a 1970 album, Sit Down Young Stranger, that barely made an impression. That is, until a disc jockey started playing one of the B-side tracks, “If You Could Read My Mind,” which became a smash hit. The album was promptly renamed and reissued, and made Lightfoot an international superstar.
Lightfoot’s success made him a national hero in Canada. Cochrane describes him as the country’s “poet laureate,” while Lee comments, “He sent the message to the world that we’re not just a bunch of lumberjacks and hockey players up here. We are capable of sensitivity and poetry.” Among the many Canadian musicians in the film who sing his praises and extol his influence are Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Anne Murray and Sarah McLachlan. A record label executive delivers perhaps the ultimate compliment: “Toronto loved him, kind of like the way Toronto loves Drake right now.”
Such hit songs as “Early Morning Rain” have been covered innumerable times. The documentary includes audio and video snippets of versions recorded by the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Ian & Sylvia, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Elvis Presley.
The film also delves into darker times that involved Lightfoot’s heavy drinking and womanizing and his troubled relationship with Cathy Smith (best known these days for having injected the drugs that killed John Belushi), which inspired his hit song “Sundown.” He eventually cleaned up his act, stopping his drinking cold turkey and embracing a healthier lifestyle that included, in true Canadian fashion, plenty of canoeing. Unfortunately, he never stopped smoking, which perhaps accounts for his gaunt appearance and a faded voice that doesn’t come close to his former honeyed baritone.
Music buffs will particularly appreciate the anecdotes about particular songs, such as Frank Sinatra’s attempt to record “If You Could Read My Mind,” only to angrily throw the sheet music on the floor and announce, “I can’t sing this.” Lightfoot’s band members describe the recording session for one of his biggest hits, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Not only was the epic song cut on the first take, but it was the first time any of the musicians had played it.
Lightfoot offers wry, rueful commentary throughout, freely admitting his personal flaws, especially regarding his relationships with women. What comes through most clearly is his lifelong, undiminished passion for writing songs and performing. The copious performance footage from throughout his career includes numbers from a 2018 show at Toronto’s storied Massey Hall, filled to capacity with an adoring audience. The film ends with a shot of him exiting through the stage door alone, guitar case in hand, as if to emphasize that despite his international fame, he’s simply a working musician.
Available in virtual cinemas
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Production companies: CBC Docs, Documentary Channel, Insight Productions
Directors-screenwriters-producers: Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni
Executive producers: John Brunton, John Murray, All Slaight, Gary Slaight
Director of photography: Kristoff Rochon
Editor: Alexander Shuper
Composer: John Welsman