Published May 23, 2019Rock docs rarely offer contrition from their subjects. Yet it's the first things we see in the opening scene of the new Gordon Lightfoot documentary, If You Could Read My Mind. Here is the legendary singer and songwriter cringing at an ancient clip of himself performing early hit, "For Lovin' Me," ashamed by its misogynistic lyrics, and their implications for his wife and children.
His feelings towards the song aren't necessarily a revelation — he stopped playing it live years ago. Still, self-effacement is rare in national heroes, as is watching an artist so clearly unnerved by the emotions expressed in one of their own songs. This scene alone makes this warm and charming retelling of the Lightfoot legend a worthwhile endeavour.
Filled with rich archival footage (the clip of a young Alex Trebek interviewing the singer is especially fun) and testimonials from an impressive array of friends and admirers — Rush, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, Lenny Waronker — the film follows a fairly typical rock doc path. Marching through his career, it occasionally pauses to take a deeper dive into some aspect of his life or artistry. We learn of Lightfoot's admiration for fellow Canadian musical hero Drake, about his struggles with alcohol and commitment, and the peers he inspired.
This last point is something the film's opening montage shows with aplomb. The array of artists from across time and geography who have covered Lightfoot's work is staggering, and speaks to his talents as a top-tier songwriter. As for his fascination with Toronto's current favourite son, there's an argument to be made that Drake is the only Canadian who has managed to balance their national (or in Drizzy's case, municipal) identity while working on an international superstar level; the film doesn't quite go this far, but Lightfoot's multiple comments about the relatively young artist suggest that filmmakers Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe see some parallels between the two.
Unlike so many similar endeavours though, filmmakers have a pair of aces up their sleeves. First is Lightfoot's story: his rise from small town boy to legitimate star mirrors Canada's own cultural awakening at the end of the '60s, and his career touches all the great songwriters from the era — Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and even the mutual appreciation society he forms with Bob Dylan. Second is Lightfoot himself, a charming, yet humble figure who seems to appreciate his continued success without really buying into his own legend.
Lightfoot's participation in the film is, of course, a double-edged sword; it probably steered the filmmakers clear of certain, more uncomfortable aspects of his career arc and input from former flames and his children are noticeably absent. Yet one never gets the sense that Lightfoot is there to obfuscate or push his own personal narrative; he speaks candidly about his mistakes and regrets, and like a good Canadian avoids disparaging anyone. That so few have anything bad to say about him as a person is admirable. That might be an impression achieved through purposeful omission, but I'd like to think that it's just as likely the truth.
We probably don't need another totem to Gordon Lightfoot — he's been a cherished Canadian institution for decades, and much of his career, as the film showcases, has been captured for posterity in various forms. Yet, If You Could Read My Mind is a timely and tasteful reminder of Lightfoot's talent and charm. (Independent)