A documentary by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni. Rated PG
This brisk new doc on Canada’s singer laureate doesn’t really get you any closer to Gordon Lightfoot than his songs will take you. But the 80-year-old performer has put himself and whatever meaning he has into his work, and that really is enough.
This isn’t to say that the 90-minute overview, from codirectors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, is without revelations.
Growing up in a paisley-tinged California, I always associated Lightfoot with the boreal North, and songs like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” cemented his backroads cred as a plaid-wearing lumberjack whose timber happened to be music.
But Orillia, Ontario’s favourite son, born just before the war, started as a church-choir soloist, played drums in cover bands, sang in a barbershop quartet, and briefly fronted a big band before finding his way into the 1960s folk boom.
The film doesn’t mention that his lightfooted prowess in football and various track sports got Gord scholarships to both McGill and the U of T. In 1958, he moved to Los Angeles to study jazz composition and instead fell under the spell of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other activist folkies, thus altering assumptions about his folkie roots.
Upon returning to Canada, he found a country niche on CBC TV (resulting in a wealth of visual material here) and eventually became part of a singer-songwriter movement that included performers like Ian & Sylvia, Murray McLauchlan, Anne Murray (all interviewed here), Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young (not aboard).
Joining the Greenwich Village strumming scene, Lightfoot fell in with Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary, who popularized “Early Morning Rain” and other originals, and formed a lifelong mutual-admiration society with upstart Bob Dylan, with whom he later toured. (Both can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue, now streaming on Netflix.)
More testimony to his national-icon status comes from the likes of Randy Bachman, Geddy Lee, Sarah McLachlan, and Alec Baldwin. (Wait. What?)
His musical accompanists have remained loyal, but none of Lightfoot’s wives or children address the camera.
Our subject, now gaunt and still keeping cigarette in hand, offers an unusually forthright mea culpa regarding his personal relationships. He’s particularly embarrassed by the sexist lyrics to early hit “For Lovin’ Me”, which he stopped performing decades ago.
“I hate that fuckin’ song,” he explains.
Gordon Lightfoot generally lets his songs do the talking—and the shutting up.