July 30, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe
Culture Representation: The documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of Canadian folk-pop singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, including Lightfoot, other entertainers and some people who work behind the scenes in the music business.
Culture Clash: Lightfoot admits that he had a lot of problems with alcohol and women during his up-and-down career.
Culture Audience: “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” will primarily appeal to people who like documentaries about singer/songwriters or folk-pop music from the 1970s, since that is the decade where Lightfoot had his biggest hits.
The documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” takes a candid yet conventional look at the Canadian folk-pop singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who presents himself as nostalgic about his accomplishments and remorseful of past mistakes, particularly in his mistreatment of women. Directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe, the movie isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it should please Lightfoot’s die-hard fans and give insight to him as an artist to people who are less familiar with his music.
The movie starts out on a humbling note, as Lightfoot is seen in his living room, uncomfortably listening to “(That’s What You Get) For Loving Me,” one of his early hits from 1965 that he originally recorded, but the song was made famous with cover versions by several other singers, including Waylon Jennings, Peter, Paul & Mary; Johnny Cash; and Elvis Presley. The lyrics of the songs are told from the point of view of an unapologetic philanderer who brags about having many sexual conquests.
Lightfoot comments with a grimace: “I’ll never write another song like that as long as I live. That song was really offensive to write for a guy who was married with a couple of kids … I didn’t know what chauvinism was.” He then adds, “There’s a great deal of regret there. I guess I don’t like who I am.”
His wife Kim Lightfoot, who is seated near him, protests: “We do, though. You were just a little boy from Orillia [in Ontario, Canada]. These people sang your songs.” However, Lightfoot eventually can’t take listening to the tune anymore and he says, “Okay, I hate this fucking song, so let’s move on.”
Born in 1938, Lightfoot was a self-taught musician as a child and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a singer/songwriter. He studied music at Westlake College in California before returning to Toronto at the age of 20. Lightfoot was working in a bank when he quit to become join a square-dancing group, which set him on a path to a career in showbiz.
Lightfoot then made his mark in the Toronto music scene in the early 1960s. He joined the music group the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight, recorded some music as a solo artist, and later teamed up with singer Terry Whelan in a duo called the Two-Tones.
However, Lightfoot says that he decided once and for all that he would be a solo artist when he walked away from Whelan’s demands to have a 50/50 partnership, even though Lightfoot was writing the duo’s songs. In the documentary, Lightfoot said it took him about a year to recover from the Two-Tones breakup and get his music career back on track: “It damn near killed me,” he says of the bitter split.
Lightfoot’s talent eventually got him noticed by Albert Grossman, who was Bob Dylan’s manager at the time, who signed Lightfoot in 1965. By then, the Beatles and Bob Dylan had taken the world by storm. Although Lightfoot wasn’t on that level of success, he saw these artists as his competition.
He admits that at the time, he was very envious of the amount of records that the Beatles were selling, which motivated him to be a better songwriter. It’s an envy that Lightfoot says is common for a lot of artists, but they don’t want to publicly admit it: “You just sit down and write another album. You just try to do better.” In the documentary, Lightfoot comments that the Beatles’ 1966 “Revolver” album made him appreciate the band for the first time as true artists.
Lightfoot’s peak of commercial success didn’t happen until the 1970s, when he had hits such as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway” and his six-minute epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” inspired by the tragic sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald that killed 29 people in 1975.
Along the way, Lightfoot became an alcoholic (he claims to be clean and sober now, but the documentary shows that he’s still a heavy smoker); fathered six children with four different women (two of the women were his ex-wives, and the other two he never married); and at the 1996 Juno Awards, he got inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame by Dylan, his hero and friendly rival.
One of the best parts of the documentary is the vivid descriptions of Lightfoot in his early years in the folk scene of Toronto’s Yorkville district, where he developed a fan following by performing at places like the Riverboat Coffee House. In the documentary, Lightfoot goes back his former stomping grounds in Yorkville to reminisce about his humble beginnings in the mid-1960s Toronto music scene, which included Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
Lightfoot says that “Early Morning Rain” was “one of my important tunes” that he wrote during this period. Sylvia Tyson of the folk duo Sylvia and Ian adds, “One of the things that was so special about folk music was that it was so accessible … Those songs said something and had a point of view … that were missing in pop music at that time.”
“The vibe was the best,” remembers True North Records founder Bernie Finkelstein. “Toronto loved him, kind of like the way Toronto loves Drake right now.” Speaking of Toronto-born rapper Drake, while Lightfoot is shown driving his car through Toronto, he sees a giant billboard of Drake, and says he’s a fan because Drake’s music is “well-orchestrated” and “professional.”
The documentary is also chock-full of great archival footage and photos. One of the more interesting things in the film is an audio recording of Lightfoot as a choir boy, when he did his first public performance as a solo singer at St. Paul’s United Church. Even with his pre-pubescent voice, it’s obvious that he had a great sense of melody and pitch.
Lightfoot says in the beginning of the documentary that he doesn’t like himself, but the movie has plenty of people who express their admiration of Lightfoot. They include entertainers such as Sarah McLachlan; Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush; Anne Murray; Ian Tyson of the duo Sylvia and Ian; Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings (of the bands Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive); Ronnie Hawkins; Steve Earle; Greg Gaffin of Bad Religion; the Good Brothers; Alec Baldwin; Murray McLauchlan; and Tom Cochrane.
Also interviewed are former Riverboat Coffee House owner Bernie Fiedler; former Warner Bros Records executive Lenny Waronker; and “Lightfoot” author Nicholas Jennings. And weighing in with their comments are Lightfoot band members Rick Haynes (bass), Barry Keane (drums) and Carter Lancaster (guitarist), who describe Lightfoot as brilliant perfectionist, but you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, especially in the days when he was a heavy drinker.
McLauchlan describes Lightfoot as “meticulous” with his songwriting. “He’s one of the few people I know who writes his lead sheets. He’s a craftsman.” Grammy-winning songstress McLachlan says that Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” is a tune that “conjures up images of the quintessential Canadian winter,” even though Lightfoot says in the documentary that the song was actually written in a hotel room in Cleveland. Murray says it’s her favorite Lightfoot song.
Other fellow Canadians gush about him. Bachman comments, “He did ballads like nobody else did them.” Cummings remembers the first time that he saw Lightfoot perform: “He changed our lives forever. We came away that night immediately wanting to be songwriters.”
Cochrane has perhaps the most over-the-top comment about Lightfoot: “He defined who we were as Canadians. It wasn’t just about pop music. It was deeper than that. If there was a Mount Rushmore in Canada, he would be on it.”
Fans of Lightfoot love his songs for their storytelling qualities. And although some of his songs are about specific things or people, he has this to say about his overall songwriting: “Almost everything I’ve done is a figment of my imagination. You just have to make sure it rhymes.”
One thing that wasn’t fictional is Lightfoot’s reputation for being a ladies’ man in his younger years. Hawkins says with a laugh about his memories of Lightfoot in the Toronto folk scene: “I had all the girls until he got big. Then he got them all.”
Lightfoot’s most notorious love affair was with backup singer Cathy Smith in the early 1970s. He left his first wife, Brita, to live with Smith for about three years, but it was a volatile relationship. Lightfoot revealed in interviews years ago that Smith was the inspiration for his 1974 hit “Sundown,” a song about suspicion of infidelity from the perspective of someone in a romance with a seductive woman. His 1970 hit single “If You Could Read My Mind” was about his deteriorating marriage to Brita.
Years later after Lightfoot and Smith’s relationship ended, Smith became infamous as the drug dealer who injected the dose of heroin and cocaine that killed comedian/actor John Belushi in Los Angeles in 1982. In 1986, after giving up her fight to be extradited from Canada, Smith turned herself in to authorities and spent 15 months in a California prison for manslaughter.
In the documentary, Lightfoot says about Smith: “I really loved her,” but he also says that he didn’t want to marry her. “It was one of those relationships where you get a feeling of danger,” he comments.
Lightfoot and a few other people in the documentary mention his days of heavy partying. And although Lightfoot hints that he indulged in taking plenty of drugs, he only specifically mentions alcohol as his main vice. Lightfoot also acknowledges that his alcoholism ruined many of his relationships, and he gives a lot of credit to his sister for helping him get sober in 1982. His passion for canoeing became part of his sobriety therapy, he says.
And in the documentary, Lightfoot makes a heartfelt public apology to anyone he’s hurt, especially the women who were damaged by the “emotional trauma” he says that he caused. He’s been married to his current and third wife Kim since 2014. And she’s shown in the documentary as his constant and loving companion.
“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” gets the job done well in telling Lightfoot’s story while putting into context how he was one of the pioneering Canadian solo artists who was able to make it big as a pop star in the United States. Lightfoot comes across as someone who survived a lot of ups and downs, and he evolved into trying to be a better person. He is keenly aware that his legacy as a human being is more important than what people will remember of his career.
Greenwich Entertainment released “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” in digital and VOD on July 29, 2020. The movie was released in Canada in 2019.