Review: ‘Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,’ starring Gordon Lightfoot

July 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gordon Lightfoot in the 1970s in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could read My Mind” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” 

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.

Gordon Lightfoot in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could read My Mind” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

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.

Review: ‘Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,’ starring Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie Hawkins, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

The Band in “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” Pictured from left to right: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. (Photo by Elliott Landy)

“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”

Directed by Daniel Roher

Culture Representation: Inspired by the 2016 “Testimony” memoir of musician Robbie Robertson (who is of Canadian and Native American heritage), this documentary tells his perspective of his life, with a particular focus on The Band, a group of rock musicians that went from being Bob Dylan’s backup band to international stars of their own right.

Culture Clash: Although most of The Band consisted of Canadians, they helped pioneer the blues-and-folk-inspired rock genre known as Americana, but The Band imploded over ego problems and drug addictions.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Robbie Robertson and The Band, as well as people who enjoy documentaries about classic rock artists.

The Band in “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” Pictured from left to right: Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. (Photo by David Gahr)

In case it wasn’t clear from the title of the movie, the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” is a biography that’s heavily slanted toward Robbie Robertson, one of the co-founders of The Band. The movie is told from his perspective, so it’s really his life story, although his time with The Band is at the heart of the movie. This traditionally made documentary (the first feature film from Canadian director Daniel Roher) takes viewers through a comprehensive and very Robertson-biased history of the group, whose original lineup broke up in 1976.

Born in 1943, Robertson knew from an early age that he wanted to be a musician. The movie begins with Robertson talking about his humble origins growing up in his native Toronto as an only child of factory workers who were in an interracial relationship: His father James Patrick Robertson was white, and his mother Rosemarie Dolly Robertson was a Native American who had ties to the Mohawk community and the Six Nations Reserve. When he was in his early teens, Robertson found out that his birth name was Jaime Royal Klegerman, because his biological father was really a Jewish gambler named Alexander David Klegerman.

After Robertson found out who his biological father was, he got to know the Klegerman side of his family, and was fascinated by his biological father’s outlaw lifestyle. This fascination also coincided with his growing interest in rock’n’roll, which was a new genre when he was a teenager, and it was considered the music of rebels. Although Robertson would learn to play several instruments, the guitar was his instrument of choice.

At the age of 13, he joined his first band (a cover band called Little Caesar and the Consuls), which lasted for about a year. Through sheer determination and persistence, Robertson talked his way into professional gigs, and for most of his mid-teens he played in local bands and worked at carnivals. He usually lied about his age back then, and because he was so talented and looked older than his real age, he was able to convince people to hire him as a musician.

When he was just 16, he began working with rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins as a guitarist in The Hawks, which was Hawkins’ backup band. Hawkins is interviewed in the documentary, and he shares fond memories of Robertson, whom he remembers as being bright and ambitious. Through his experience with The Hawks, Robertson met the other musicians who would eventually become members of The Band: drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist/saxophonist Garth Hudson and multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel. All of them were Canadian, except for Helm, who was American. (Helm died in 2012, Danko died in 1999, and Manuel died in 1986.)

In addition to Hawkins, Robertson credits Helm and guitarist Roy Buchanan (who was briefly a member of The Hawks) as being extremely influential to him as a young musician. Helm in particular became like an older brother to Robertson, so when their relationship turned sour years later, Robertson said it was heartbreaking for him.

In 1964, The Hawks left Hawkins and began performing as Levon and The Hawks, with Helm as lead singer/drummer, Robertson as lead guitarist, Danko as bassist, Manuel as multi-instrumentalist and Hudson as keyboardist/saxophonist. Their music was bluesier and more soulful than the rockabilly that Hawkins performed. That blues/soul influence would later become part of The Band’s signature sound. It’s rock music that mixes elements of blues, soul, folk and country—a subgenre that people now call Americana.

The group known as Levon and The Hawks then began working as Bob Dylan’s backup band in 1965, and they toured the world with him for about a year. (Dylan is not interviewed in this documentary, but there’s archival footage of Dylan working with the band.) It was through Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman that The Hawks relocated to upstate New York, where Dylan was based at the time. The band members settled in the cities of Woodstock and West Saugerties.

This relocation was a pivotal moment in Robertson’s history because it led to the famous “Basement Tape Sessions” of 1967, when Dylan and members of the band wrote and recorded songs together in a pink house in West Saugerties. By this time, The Hawks had renamed themselves The Band, and did recording sessions on their own without Dylan as the lead singer. The sessions would turn into The Band’s landmark 1968 debut album, “Music from Big Pink,” which included the single “The Weight,” which is arguably The Band’s best-known song.

The instant success of “Music From Big Pink” created demand for The Band as a standalone act, so the group amicably parted ways with Dylan, although The Band would occasionally work with Dylan again as a guest collaborator. The Band continued to have a steady stream of success, including the hit songs “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Don’t Do It” and “On a Night Like This.” (The Band was also one of the performers at the Woodstock Festival, although the performance didn’t make it into the “Woodstock” movie.)

The Band was unusual because the group’s original lineup had three lead singers—Helm, Robertson and Danko—and that jockeying for frontman power caused internal conflicts over who would sing lead on which songs. However, The Band was an example of being a group whose sum was greater than its parts. The documentary includes a treasure trove of great behind-the-scenes photos, audio recordings and video footage of The Band rehearsing and recording. Even if people are already familiar with The Band before seeing this documentary, this footage is a reminder how special and electrifying The Band’s chemistry was.

And that once-in-a-lifetime chemistry is one of the reasons why The Band was so well-respected among musical peers. The documentary interviews famous fans Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal and the usually media-shy Van Morrison, who talk about how much they admired the musicianship and songwriting talent in The Band. Bruce Springsteen, who’s also interviewed, gushes about how influential The Band was to him as a musician.

But just like many other famous bands that broke up, The Band’s demise came down to egos and drugs. The way Robertson tells it, he was the driving force in the band for many years, as the chief songwriter and as the member most likely to hold things together, even though the drug addictions of Helm, Manuel and Danko were tearing the band apart. Robertson says that Helm went from being someone who swore he would never do heroin to being perhaps the most hardcore heroin addict of the three.

And what about keyboardist/saxophonist Hudson? He’s described in the documentary as sweet and shy and the least likely one in the band to cause trouble. Unfortunately, viewers won’t hear his perspective in this documentary. According to the production notes, “Once Were Brothers” director Roher spent a weekend interviewing Hudson on-camera, but that footage didn’t make the final cut.

Roher comments in the production notes about filming Hudson for the documentary: “He played music for me, and we had an amazing time together, but for reasons that are difficult to discuss, it soon became apparent we couldn’t use the footage. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to meet with him and shoot that interview. In the end, though, I understood that we had to find another way to add his voice to the documentary.”

Meanwhile, in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Robertson had this to say about why Hudson isn’t in the documentary: “Garth is a recluse and he doesn’t talk. He has a health issue. I don’t think it would be respectful to Garth to show that he is not feeling that well, and to not be able to show him in a shining light.”

Robertson says in the film that because he was the first member of The Band to get married and start a family during the height of The Band’s fame, he had a different lifestyle and perspective than the other members of The Band (namely, Helm, Danko and Manuel), who were living the lives of wild and single rock stars. And because Robertson was the most business-minded member of the group, it caused a wedge between him and the other members of the band.

In the years after The Band’s breakup, Helm would bitterly complain in interviews about business and legal disagreements that he had with Robertson, who gave his blessing for Helm, Danko and Manuel to continue as The Band without him after the original lineup broke up. In the “Once Were Brothers” documentary, Robertson says one of his biggest regrets is that he never fully reconciled with Helm before his death in 2012. Helm wrote his own memoir (1993’s “This Wheel’s on Fire”) and was the subject of the 2010 documentary “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm,” so his perspective is worth looking into for people who want his side of the story.

The documentary makes it clear that Robertson was no clean-living angel during his time in The Band and after the breakup. He openly admits that he also abused drugs and alcohol over the years. However, Robertson was never addicted, according to his ex-wife Dominique Robertson, who’s currently an addiction counselor and who was married to Robbie Robertson from 1967 to 1997. In the documentary, Dominique Robertson also recalls harrowing incidents, when the The Band lived near each other in upstate New York, of Helm and Danko wrecking their cars because they were driving while intoxicated.

Robertson glosses over a lot of his drug use in the documentary with vague and brief comments about his experiences with drugs, whereas there are vivid descriptions of how drugs (especially heroin) were behind the downward spirals of Helm, Manuel and Danko. The way Robertson tells it, he grew increasingly frustrated with their tardiness and what he describes as their eventual sloppy musicianship, while he remained the responsible workaholic who was holding the band together, even though he was abusing drugs and alcohol too. You get the impression that Robertson is embellishing his role as the noble protagonist of this story, and that all the blame shouldn’t be placed on Helm, Manuel and Danko for ruining The Band. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

By making Robertson the hero of this story, because he says he tried to save The Band, the documentary by default makes Helm, Manuel and Danko look like the selfish “screw-ups” and unintentional quasi-villains. It feels a bit like an insulting pile-on about people who aren’t alive to defend themselves or tell their sides of the story in this movie. It’s too bad that this documentary doesn’t have Hudson’s perspective as the only other surviving member of The Band’s original lineup.

At any rate, Robertson has made it clear in this documentary and in several interviews he’s done over the years that The Band’s original lineup probably would’ve kept going if not for the drug addictions, and he was the one who chose to pull the plug on the original lineup and walk away.

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, who’s been Robertson’s close friend for decades, is also interviewed. He shares some great behind-the-scenes stories about directing “The Last Waltz,” the 1978 concert documentary that chronicled The Band’s final performance with the original lineup on November 25, 1976. The concert, which took place in San Francisco, also had guest stars such as Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Morrison.

Of course, there are clips from “The Last Waltz,” which are among the highlights of “Once Were Brothers.” It just goes to show how “The Last Waltz” is such a great concert film when scenes from the movie are some of the best parts of another documentary about Robertson and The Band. In fact, “The Last Waltz” performance of “The Night They Drove All Dixie Down” is used during the closing credits of “Once Were Brothers.”

Overall, director Roher made excellent choices in the archival footage and how the music was edited in the film. Although Robertson’s solo career (including his work as a film composer) is mentioned, the filmmakers made the wise decision to put the movie’s focus primarily on The Band.

Roher (who says he begged and pleaded to direct this documentary because he loves Robbie Robertson and The Band so much) approaches the subject matter like the superfan that he admits he is. The people who are in this movie seem to be only those who were approved by Robertson. A little more investigative journalism would have given this documentary a more well-rounded variety of perspectives.

Ultimately though, the music and talent of Robertson and The Band are the real attractions for this movie. And in that respect, this documentary is a crowd-pleaser.

Magnolia Pictures released “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.