Synopsis: The iconic Canadian musician, Gordon Lightfoot, reflects on his life and career.
Stars: Gordon Lightfoot, Randy Bachman, Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Cochrane, Burton Cummings, Sylvia Tyson, Lenny Waronker, Geddy Lee
Director: Martha Kehoe & Joan Tosoni
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I’m getting old. I know this not by the birthdays with cakes that have enough candles to recreate the finale of Backdraft or the amount of complaining I do about the assortment of aches and pains I have but in my relationship with music. Used to be that I knew the popular songs of the day and the artists that were involved but a recent scan of the top charts at the Billboard website reads like a Who’s Who of who’s not on my radar at all. The rare song I do catch hardly speaks to me the way I remember the medium had in the past and I think it’s because the artist behind the tunes have changed.
That’s never clearer than in the new documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a sometimes candid but more often than not straight-up love letter to the folksy singer-songwriter. Blazing a trail through his native Canada with his storytelling through song coupled with his melodic voice before making a similar splash in the states, Lightfoot’s songs have been covered by artists across a number of genres, further proof of their lasting appeal. Yet the music that was often written out of emotional points in Lightfoot’s life wound up coming back to haunt him over the years and he paid a personal price his devoted audience wasn’t privy to.
Growing up in a city outside of Ontario, Lightfoot sang in his church choir and excelled at music throughout his high school years and moved to California in 1958 to study music seriously. Returning to Toronto, he left his day job in a corporate environment that would have left him unfilled for an opportunity to perform on a country western music television show. From there, he sang in various bands and side gigs before finally going solo, eventually finding success in Toronto’s burgeoning coffee house folk music scene. Writing songs that would go on to be recorded/covered by the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, and contemporaries such as Sarah McLachlan, and Diana Krall, Lightfoot came to be known for his deeply felt lyrics and ability to transport the listener.
Interviewing Lightfoot now, directors Martha Kehoe & Joan Tosoni mostly let the acclaimed musician drive his own narrative, choosing what he wants to cover and skillfully dodging the more personal moments along the way. While Lightfoot’s addiction to alcohol and resulting sobriety serve as a main focus for an extended sequence in the home stretch of the film, there’s little about his marriages or his six children included. Perhaps that’s at their request or maybe it’s because Lightfoot has felt the blowback of drawing on inspiration from his intimate life before in his art. For example, his tumultuous affair with backup singer Cathy Smith (herself the center of controversy over her involvement in the death of John Belushi) led Lightfoot to write the hit song ‘Sundown’. It’s also a bit surprising that Kehoe and Tosoni sidestep Lightfoot’s health issues in recent years, like a minor stroke that happened onstage a decade ago. It’s not because there’s a particular need to see any kind of suffering but because the entire film feels like a testimony to his staying power. At 81, Lightfoot is still performing, often sharing the stage with the same band members that have been by his side for several decades. So why not show his journey back like they do with his canoe trips that helped him when he gave up booze?
Canadians and fans of Canadian musicians will surely spark to the interviews with a number of famous faces from that scene, all who join the chorus to sing Lightfoot’s praises. They speak of their first experience with his music and how it inspired them in their careers, often recounting the personal impact of his lyrics with great emotion. The only interview that seems out of place is Alec Baldwin who doesn’t seem to share any ties with Lightfoot other than being a fan. It’s a weirdly shoehorned in discussion, like he was doing a favor for the directors.
Running a too-short 91 minutes, I can’t help but wonder when a big-screen biopic of Lightfoot will make its way to theaters or spring to life as a limited series. The internet has already pegged Chris Pratt as bearing a striking resemblance to Lightfoot in his early to mid-adult years but in his later period he’s beginning to look a lot more like Bryan Cranston…so there’s definitely options if this ever came to be. For now, hear (most of) the story from the man himself and take a journey in song…and what good songs they are.