For our neighbors to the north, the documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” reaffirms the Canadian singer-songwriter’s position as a national treasure. U.S. audiences will be reminded of the power of an artist who was once a radio staple and regularly sold out shows at the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre and Universal Amphitheatre whenever he came to L.A.
Written and directed by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, the film is smartly structured around notable songs in the Gordon Lightfoot catalog, charting his journey from small-town, post-World War II Ontario to the coffee houses of 1960s Toronto and his chart-topping run of hits in the 1970s, as the gifted musician found success across the folk, country, rock and pop realms.
Known for his distinctive baritone and emotion-rich songs about heartbreak and betrayal (“If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown”), isolation (“Early Morning Rain,” “Song for a Winter’s Night”) and trains and ships (“Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”), Lightfoot connected to Canada’s roots in a way that holds few analogs.
Canadian musicians, including Ronnie Hawkins, Ian and Sylvia Tyson (the former folk duo, now divorced), Anne Murray, Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, Tom Cochrane, and Sarah McLachlan, attest to that connection in the documentary, along with observations from Americans Steve Earle, Greg Graffin of Bad Religion and (somewhat inexplicably) Alec Baldwin. Bandmates and Lightfoot’s contemporary, Murray McLauchlan, offer insights into his creative process, but it is the man himself who reveals the most about his work ethic and the price he paid for that devotion.
The five-time Grammy nominee and 2012 inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, who studied and learned to write music at an early age, earned perhaps his strongest endorsement from the peers who have covered his songs. Attracted by the poetic lyrics and strong craftsmanship, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Peter, Paul and Mary are among the many who have recorded Lightfoot compositions.
The thrice-married Lightfoot is an affable, introspective and frank subject, acknowledging mistakes made along the way in both art and love, and the intertwined nature of the two pursuits. In the film’s opening scene, after watching a vintage television performance of the 1965 confessional “For Lovin’ Me,” he declares, “I hate that (expletive) song,” dismayed not by the quality of his writing but the revealing content about his first marriage.
Kehoe and Tosoni weave together a bounty of archival footage and photographs to visually capture Lightfoot’s performances across his almost six-decade career. Any detail lost in the documentary’s nontraditional narrative is more than made up for by the powerful emotions it churns up, particularly during a 2018 concert at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall just before it closed for renovations (nicely established with ghostly imagery during a striking opening titles sequence).
“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” is a thoroughly engaging retrospective of a hard-working, hard-living performer who survived to tell the tale. Overcoming alcoholism in his 40s and a near-death experience in 2002, Lightfoot learned to embrace life, accept regret and at age 81, is ready to get back out on the road.
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