Review: Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is a candid, revealing music doc

Even though the film offers the requisite career arc checklist, the Canadian singer/songwriter offers lots of insights into his music and life


Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Joan Tosoni, Martha Kehoe). 90 minutes. Opens Friday (May 24). See listing. Rating: NNNN


If you’re worried Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is the kind of hagiography all too common in music docs, that danger is thwarted before the opening credits. Watching old 1960s footage of himself playing his early hit For Lovin’ Me, the Canadian icon looks down, shuts his eyes and cringes.

“I was so naive,” he says of the ramblin’ man country kiss-off song, which was covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Elvis.

“I don’t think I knew what chauvinism was.”

While the film could easily indulge in baby boomer nostalgia, Lightfoot doesn’t let it. Now 80, he’s gregarious and reflective, grateful for his accomplishments without overlooking his faults. Considering the depth of his career – which, with songs like The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald and the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, defined a ruggedly sensitive version of Canadiana – that makes him almost the perfect subject.

He even sometimes speaks in sound bites (and he even calls them sound bites). 

It’s rare that Lightfoot provides this type of access, and it gives writer/directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni a lot of rich material to work with. 

There are other talking heads, too – everyone from Sarah McLachlan, Anne Murray and Steve Earle to, for some reason, Alec Baldwin – but it’s Lightfoot himself who provides the most insight. 

That helps temper the requisite career arc checklist, which is pretty much unavoidable in this genre. He’s an affable tour guide, from his hometown of Orillia (even providing a recording of himself singing in church when he was an eight-year-old soprano) to the 60s folk revival scene in Yorkville, which is intercut with scenes of the bougie Yorkville of today.

He’s happy to talk about individual songs, too, revealing a laborious, somewhat isolated approach to writing. And he frankly discusses his 80s alcoholism, without glorifying it in the context of his legendarily excessive, celebrity-filled Rosedale mansion parties. 

There’s plenty of exceptional archival material, including old and new performance footage – you can see Lightfoot behind the scenes at the final pre-renovation show at Massey Hall last year – and lots of shots of Toronto’s neon past. (There are even a few parallels made between Lightfoot and Drake – both were heavily associated with Toronto in their respective heydays.) 

For all of Lightfoot’s introspection, he often downplays his actual genius – you use your imagination and make sure it rhymes, he says. And the main reason he’s still as prolific a performer as ever, he claims, is because he has six children (not to mention grandchildren) for whom he still feels responsible. 

But he admits to feeling some regret about his life, especially for the trauma he’s caused women throughout his relationships. Rather than go into specifics, he hints that it’s there in the lyrics of his songs – that, if you want to really get below the surface into his deeper thoughts and emotions, that’s where you have to look.

For the most part, the documentary follows his lead, choosing not to dig too far into any salacious details, even though they provide the weight behind Lightfoot’s self-reflection. 

Even if it’s not all spelled out, you don’t have to read his mind – there are plenty of his songs to listen to. 

@trapunski

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