One of the first 45 rpm records I ever bought was Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”. The year was 1971 and I loved the haunting vibrato to his voice. Little did I suspect at the time that his first international hit was about the breakup of what would be his first marriage. In fact, I didn’t know that at all until I watched the new, aptly-named documentary on this music legend.
GORDON LIGHTFOOT: IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND covers that little tidbit of music trivia and a whole lot more about the folk-pop singer-songwriter. Hailing from the small town of Orillia, Ontario (I’ll save you looking it up on Google Maps by telling you that it’s about 130 km north of Toronto, straddling Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching), Lightfoot began his singing career in the late 1940s as a choirboy in the family’s church. He knew early on that he was destined for a career in music and, when he was barely 20 years old, he moved to Hollywood where he studied music composition and orchestration. Writing about his life, love, loss and loneliness, he quickly developed a reputation as a gifted songwriter on par with Bob Dylan, who himself was up-and-coming at the time. Indeed, one of his earliest works, “Early Morning Rain”, was a bigger hit for such performers as Ian & Sylvia; Peter, Paul and Mary; Dylan; Elvis; and Jerry Lee Lewis than it was for him. It wasn’t until Warner Bros. released “If You Could Read My Mind” as a single that his career outside of Canada really took off.
While the film is highly entertaining and the music is, of course, fabulous, IYCRMM’s straightforward structure could have benefitted from a bit more creativity from co-directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, who have known and worked with Lightfoot for years. The film features a cavalcade of talking heads that includes such Canadian music legends as Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Geddy Lee (who has the film’s best line hands down), Alex Lifeson, Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan, Murray McLauchlan, Tom Cochrane and Ronnie Hawkins, all of them saying how much Lightfoot influenced their own careers. Curiously, Alec Baldwin, who is neither a musician nor a Canadian, is seen a few times throughout the film waxing lyrically about Lightfoot. Maybe he’s acting as an audience surrogate, otherwise I have no idea why he’s there. Lightfoot is also on hand to fill in some of the blanks on his life and career. The man is now in his 80s and still doing more than 100 shows a year, though his singing voice doesn’t have the same smooth-as-maple-syrup-on-Sunday-morning-pancakes tone that he had back in his prime. His former hard-drinking, hard-smoking and hard-partying ways are clearly visible on his wizened face but he and others in the know say that he’s been embracing a healthy lifestyle for almost forty years now. (He’s often seen working out in a downtown Toronto gym.) The musician, though, is still very reticent to discuss his private life that includes six children from three marriages and two relationships, one of those relationships being with Cathy Smith, the woman who injected John Belushi with those fatal speedballs. (Lightfoot’s 1974 hit, “Sundown”, was written with Smith in mind.) His current wife, Kim, whom he married in 2004, can be seen and heard just on the fringe of the camera’s viewfinder.
Even with its shortcomings though, IYCRMM is still well worth watching and should be required viewing for Canadians everywhere. GORDON LIGHTFOOT: IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND is currently available on Netflix in some territories.
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