The goal was a daunting one for directors Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe when they got famously enigmatic Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot in front of the camera to tell the story of his life.
“We really, really wanted to get something more than what people have heard already,” Tosoni says, in a conference call with Kehoe from Toronto. “And we knew that would take some time, because he needs to trust you. He’s an inscrutable man, and we were aware of that from the beginning.”
The fascinating thing about Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is the way that one of the greatest storytellers in the history of pop music—Canadian or otherwise—seems at once totally open, and yet at the same time leaves one thinking there’s plenty going on inside that he’s never going to share.
That’s hinted at by Lightfoot’s peers. At one point in If You Could Read My Mind, Murray McLauchlan suggests that Bob Dylan and Lightfoot have more in common than a mutual admiration and respect for each other’s talent.
“Murray says if two enigmatic people could be in a perfect marriage, it would be Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot,” Kehoe says with a laugh. “That’s really true. I was very gratified to hear his drummer say, ‘You could drive across the country with Gord and he’d never say anything poetic.’ He says everything that he has to say in his songs.”
If all this makes it sound like Lightfoot is unwilling to pull back the curtain on his career, it shouldn’t. Fans whose working relationship goes back to the long-running CanCon staple The Tommy Hunter Show, the directors began seriously working to get Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind off the ground a half-dozen years ago. That’s when Lightfoot let them know he was ready to tell his story.
“I think he had a fear that he never wants his career to end,” Kehoe says. “He didn’t want to do a comprehensive film as if it was over. I think, at this point, he’s getting on, and he feels a responsibility to his body of work. So he wants to bring attention to it, and this is part of that.”
If You Could Read My Mind starts off in the present day, with Lightfoot looking back at footage of his younger self performing his ’60s hit “For Lovin’ Me” and being appalled. Not by the fact that it showcased him as a monster talent who’d rack up an endless string of monster hits over the coming decades, including “Sundown”, “Rainy Day People”, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, and too many others to count here. Instead, right before declaring “I hate this fucking song,” he confesses “I guess I don’t like who I am.”
His reason? The song is an almost painfully autobiographical account of a messed-up-on-multiple-fronts Lightfoot walking out on his wife and young family.
Consider that a heads up that Kehoe and Tosoni don’t just focus on the highs in If You Could Read My Mind.
Little moments make it clear how deep the filmmakers dug for the film: an early Lightfoot interview with an impossibly young Alex Trebek; scratchy audio of his earliest live performance, as a choirboy in church in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario. Mixed in with modern-day interviews and performances is a treasure trove of crazily obscure historical moments (Lightfoot as a bit player on the ’60s CBC show Country Hoedown), snaps of old posters and rare archival photos (star-studded ’70s house parties in Toronto where you can almost smell the Crown Royal), and auxiliary interviews with peers and insiders that put his career in complete and important perspective.
The 80-year-old is deservedly feted in the film by a long list of artists that includes Steve Earle, Sarah McLachlan, Geddy Lee, Alec Baldwin, Anne Murray, and a clearly thrilled-to-be-there Greg Graffin of Bad Religion. What also emerges is Lightfoot’s deep respect for his craft—as much as he had a golden touch that’s seen his work covered by everyone from Elvis to the Dandy Warhols, he’s also taken a meticulously workmanlike approach to the business of songwriting.
What ultimately emerges is a picture of a deeply conflicted and perhaps tormented artist, whose life includes a long path of failed relationships and the profound regrets that come with them. No matter how big a Lightfoot fan you might be, you’ll learn things to the point where you’ll never listen to the timeless “If You Could Read My Mind” the same way again.
“He really is an artist, first and foremost,” Kehoe says. “But also within that headspace there’s the workman, there’s the dreamer, there’s the lover, there’s the crabby guy. All these different characters are there within Gord. And then there’s also this guy from Orillia, and that’s who he feels he needs to be a lot of the time.”
With that, Tosoni jumps in with, “He’s very, very unpretentious, but not pretentiously so. He’s basically got a very Canadian personality.”
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind screens at SFU Woodward’s on May 4 and the Vancity Theatre on May 12.