Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

Sitting inside his Toronto mansion, Canada's premiere singer/songwriter talks about how much he hates his song 'For Lovin' Me,' a performance of which he's watching on TV as his third wife, Kim (twenty-five years his junior) laughs in the background.  'I was *married*,' he says, concerned decades later about just what his first wife Brita thought of those lyrics.  Writer/directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni follow their subject down memory lane to chart an extraordinary career in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind.”

Laura's Review: B+

My husband Robin and I have generational differences in music (he – Motown, Classical, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot; me – punk, Ethereal Wave, Goth, The Cure and Kate Bush), but he won the wedding song pick with Lightfoot’s 1972 ‘Beautiful’ and it is amusing to learn, here, that it is Alec Baldwin’s favorite ballad.  While this documentary isn’t a definitive biography of Lightfoot, skipping over many aspects of his life (his second marriage, a number of honors and awards, various illnesses), it covers his music career so well, Robin was surprised not once, but twice, with unfamiliar songs.

We can see the care that has gone into the film’s editing and visual look right away with an opening title sequence that features a train speeding by a vinyl record spinning on a turntable and Lightfoot’s music and lyrics overlaid on a running brook.  Editor Alex Shuper seamlessly cuts together vintage and contemporary performances of the same song, a device that showcases just how good Lightfoot still is at eighty.  Perhaps the most surprising filmmaking find is an audio recording of the star as a child Church soprano, his much remarked upon voice soaring higher than we’ve ever heard it before.

The filmmakers go along with Lightfoot as he drives his ‘old man’s’ Buick into the city, then walks around pointing out the sites of Yorkville’s famous coffee houses where he got his start at that point in time when folk, rock and country music met (a young fan stands in front of one taking his picture as he gestures).  He tells us how he was making a decent living working for the Royal Bank and how a manager was surprised when he left ‘to become a square dancer.’  Joni Mitchell used to chide him for his envy of the Beatles’ success, turning his frustration at releasing records at the same time they did into appreciation of their music.

As he started pulling in crowds in Toronto, the hits started to flow beginning with ‘Early Morning Rain,’ a song covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Paul Weller and Neil Young.  Others, like ‘Steel Rail Blues’ and ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ followed as he reached larger and larger audiences.  His only number 1 hit in the U.S., “Sundown,” was about the jealousy that ate him alive during his three year affair with the infamous Cathy Smith (the one who went on to give John Belushi his lethal injection).  But perhaps Lightfoot’s greatest achievement is how he imbued the essence of Canada into his music with such songs as ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,’ which Sarah McLachlan recalls as an early busking favorite, and the ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’ which he wrote for Canada’s 1967 Centennial.       

The Gordon Lightfoot we see now is slight, almost cadaverous, with long white hair, but it is amazing to watch his many physical iterations throughout the years, beginning as a squeaky clean cut, thinner Glenn Campbell type before morphing into the huskier, afro’ed rendition during his peak.  Heavy drinking (we hear about and see evidence of legendary parties held at his home) packed on the pounds and almost derailed his career, but thankfully he came roaring back, inducted into Canada’s Juno Hall of Fame in 1986 by his own idol, Bob Dylan.           

A singular style, beautiful voice, poetic lyrics and perfectionism in the recording studio has made Gordon Lightfoot a legend.  Fans will find a lot to love in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind.”

Robin's Review: B+

I have been a fan of Gordon Lightfoot and his wonderful music since the late 1960s. We even had his song “Beautiful” played, special, at our wedding. So, for me, a documentary about the man and the many, many songs that I have loved is a wishful no-brainer - I get my wish with “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind.”

It is a little hard to keep an open mind when you absolutely love, love, love the subject of a documentary. So, let me say, that the Gordo fan within me gives “GL: IYCRMM” an A+++. But, the ardent fan has to sit this one out and the movie reviewer takes over. That said, this is a finely chronicled life-story music doc that deals with Lightfoot’s early and middle career as told by Gordo in the present.

Documakers Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni did their homework as they collected copious amounts of Gordo’s early performances and the many songs that he both penned and crooned. They also have assembled many talking head interviews with music notables and the members of the band talking about Lightfoot and the impact he has had, both as a performer and as a representative of his country – Canada, if you did not know.

But, the reason for “GL: IYCRMM” is his music. For many years I have considered Lightfoot the last of the great balladeers, those musicians of long ago who wandered the world telling their stories and entertaining their listeners. I have divided the man’s music, roughly, into four categories (I know, there are more, but for the sake of this analysis…).

The most well-known are GL’s historical tales, like “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Then, there are his lovable rogue songs, like “I’m Not Saying That I Love You,” and his forlorn wanderer tunes, like “Early Morning Rain.” And, then there are the romantic songs like the aforementioned “Beautiful,” “Softly,” and “If You Could Read My Mind.” You get these great tunes and many more.

As I said, many music icons talk about Lightfoot and his music. But, the thing that struck me the most is the number of these music industry luminaries who did covers of Lightfoot songs. To mention some, but not nearly all, are Ian and Sylvia (if you followed folk music in the 60s and 70s you would know them), Peter, Paul and Mary, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams and Herb Alpert. The list is impressive and we get a sample of the covers, too.

The focus of this entertaining documentary is on the man’s early and middle career. Little time is spent on Lightfoot’s later years and further accomplishments and but that does not matters. The reason we are here is for the wonderful music, songs and stories that Lightfoot performs so well and his lifetime of dedication to his art. We get insight, through his eyes and of those closest to him, on just how dedicated he is – a real perfectionist. It shows in his songs, as it does his Canadian heritage.

When you know a subject very well, it is always a treat to be given more than you once knew. Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni do exactly that, including several of Gordo’s songs that I did not know! Pretty darn good stuff for a fan like me.