By Jim Slotek
You know the biographical doc you’re watching is not exactly going to be a puff piece when the subject spends the first 10 minutes cringing.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind – a feature at the recent Hot Docs film fest – opens with the 80-year-old Lightfoot at his Bridle Path home with wife Kim, watching cover-after-cover of what turns out to be the song he’s most ashamed of, (That’s What You Get) For Loving Me. The parade of covers includes Peter, Paul & Mary, Ian & Sylvia, Johnny Cash, etc.
Finally, he insists they stop. And when you consider it, the song does contain possibly the most cruel lyrics ever written by a man to a woman.
It’s understandable enough if Lightfoot simply regrets his early callowness. But there could be guilt involved too. If this expansive documentary about one of Canada’s true poets reveals much about his astonishing creativity, it also suggests some things about his personality – one of which is that being one of the women in his life was not always easy. Tellingly, Lightfoot’s four children, from two marriages, are not part of the production.
He clearly had an ego, one that drove him out of the gravity-well of Orillia where he grew up, to Toronto’s Yorkville scene (and odd turns in a barbershop quartet, a spot as a singer on CBC’s Country Hoedown and half of a folk duo).
But what he could do was write songs. There’s the requisite amount of dirty laundry in this archive-laden bio, directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe (they obviously weren’t going to let go of his crazily passionate relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith, who would later be involved in the death of John Belushi). But its insights for music fans are remarkably rich. Self-taught, he wrote his own music and arrangements by hand in hotel rooms. Though he was a perfectionist, one of his biggest hits, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was not only a first-take that made it to the single, it was the first time the band ever saw the song on paper and played it.
He was friends with people who weren’t easy to know, like Bob Dylan (there’s footage of the famous 1972 Mariposa festival in Toronto, where Dylan showed up to hang with Lightfoot, (who played for a while on a picnic table, and watch Neil Young perform a surprise set – a game-changing moment for me, since I was a 14-year-old in attendance). The film includes intimate moments of chaotic parties with impromptu songs from Dylan and others.
And though the film is full of the usual expert-witnesses (including Steve Earle, Sarah McLachlan, both Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Anne Murray, Geddy Lee and, incongruously, Alec Baldwin), it’s Lightfoot’s own story, with a narrative strung together by songs, that compels. He managed to become an international star while staying as Canadian as maple syrup – a balance that confounds artists even today. The lyrics to Edmund Fitzgerald and the epic Canadian Railroad Trilogy alone should make him required reading in Canadian literature classes.
There is a Boomer attraction to all of this, of course. The archival footage of life in ‘60s Yorkville and the Yonge Street strip alone will bring a tear to many an eye.
In the end, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind does not quite read its subject’s mind. But you’ll likely come out knowing much more about him, and appreciating his place in history that much more.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind. Directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe. Starring Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Anne Murray. Opens Friday, May 24 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and across Canada through June.