What a tale his thoughts do tell… New Documentary Shines a Light on Canadian Singer-Songwriting Icon.

DIRECTED BY MARTHA KEHOE & JOAN TOSONI/2020 (U.S. Release)

DVD STREET DATE: AUGUST 25, 2020/GREENWICH; KINO LORBER

Gordon Lightfoot watches, practically through his fingers, as Gordon Lightfoot performs “For Lovin’ Me”, one of his many hits from back in the day.  Considerably older, stringier, and physically withered compared to the upright and barrel-chested version of himself singing on screen, the Lightfoot of today can barely take it anymore.  “Where did I get off writing a song like this??”

That’s what you get for lovin’ me

I ain’t the kind to hang around

With any new love that I found

‘Cause movin’ is my stock in trade

I’m movin’ on

I won’t think of you when I’m gone

It goes on, and, in the offensive sense, gets worse.  Until, “TURN IT OFF!”  And with that, old man Lightfoot swears off his song and, by extension, his former self. 

How did he arrive to this point of reconsideration, to such a higher level of sensitivity than even his poetic hits of yore reflected so potently?  That’s the question that the new documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind posits pre-opening titles.  And while it never quite satisfies that query in any profound or memorable way, this otherwise-standard-issue survey of an important and prominent musician of the late twentieth century does manage to serve up at least a few keeper moments.  

One such moment comes early in the film as Lightfoot drives through downtown Toronto, musing on “Toronto sound” pioneer Drake, who’s likeness he spots on a passing billboard.  The moment is one of nothing but respect for this next-generational artist, to the degree that one half expects the film to cut to Drake, returning the compliment.  Alas, Drake does not appear in If You Could Read My Mind, though probably not for any lack of trying on behalf of the filmmakers.  

Two of this film’s great strengths are the quantity and quality of the interviews which they did get.  Fellow singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Randy Bachman, and Tom Cochrane, chime in with their Lightfoot observations, as well as some voices from outside of that sphere such as Anne Murray, Sarah Mclachlan, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, and Alec Baldwin.  The one thing that they all have in common is their unreserved gushing admiration of the man and his music.  Indeed, Gordon Lightfoot is a songwriting genius and a folk music luminary.

Gordon Lightfoot, currently.

Frankly though, the praise gets to be a little much after a while.  Whatever promise there initially was of If You Could Read My Mind painting outside of the lines evaporate pretty quickly in favor of it being quite by-the-numbers.  That said, the chronology is shuffled, if only tightly shuffled.  The decision to veer into Lightfoot’s childhood years at the thirty-minute- point just as the story of his career is taking off- is a momentum killer. 

The decision to withhold footage of the subject singing the title song until the end is all but telegraphed when instead of Lightfoot, we get a montage of the many covers of “If You Could Read My Mind” when its moment arrives mid-film.  It’s a vital moment, being the song that propelled him to stardom.  Not hearing him actually sing it at this crucial point in a documentary of its namesake is yet another misstep.  When we finally do get to hear Lightfoot singing the song, it’s at finale of the film, depicting him taking the stage once more at eighty-plus years-old.  It innercuts with vintage footage of him performing it, with only spotlights how weakened his exceptional voice has become.  Still, him performing at this age is a triumph in and of itself- that certainly comes through.

For all of the nits picked here, If You Could Read My Mind still lands as a satisfying (if not resonant) watch.  Fans and newcomers to Lightfoot’s music should find plenty to enjoy.  The film goes through it all, from his humble beginnings as a “square dancer” on a vintage hoedown show to his evolution as a songwriter of solidarity focus to his breakthrough as a performer to his scaling the walls of fame in the only decade that could enable a Canadian folkie solo act to ascend thusly, the 1970s.  

In turn, it also follows Lightfoot through failed relationships, family units he left behind, alcohol problems, and other points wherein he was so closed off that no one could read his mind even if they were able to.  Eventually, it sees him through to going cold turkey from the substance abuse, getting heavily into canoeing the wilds of Canada, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, and eventfully, remorse for the harm he’s caused to others.  Through it all, the film works hard to be honest about the man while never peeling away admiration for his music.  Even his current wife tries to offer him some comfort over “For Lovin’ Me”, of which he will have none of.

Kino Lorber’s DVD of this Greenwich release is a no-frills affair, containing literally only the movie and some other trailers. The film, though, sports a fine transfer for standard definition, and quality audio for the many, many songs that are featured, by Lightfoot and others (as varied as Bob Dylan- who warrants his own segment- and Elvis Presley).  

For many a fan, such a legacy spawned of a voice so haunting and so resonant, coupled with a career of brilliant turns of phrases, is more than enough.  For Gordon Lightfoot himself, it will never be.  Whatever physical weight he’s lost (the result, apparently, of dire medical issues and procedures that occurred in the early 2000s, none of which is covered here), it seems to have compounded in emotional weight.  Yet, the man does not seem bitter.  This tidy telling of his rise to fame and grappling with his demons may not be to the documentary art what his songwriting is to popular music, but it strikes its chords well enough.  Just like an old-time movie… ‘Bout a ghost from a wishin’ well.