Music documentaries often veer into hagiography, looking back with rose coloured glasses at their subject. There are heaps of high praise in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” a new career retrospective from co-directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, but right from the outset it displays an honesty rare in authorized bios.
After a few bars of his chauvinistic ’60s hit “For Lovin’ Me” Lightfoot, watching vintage footage, demands it be shut off. “That’s a very offensive song for a guy to write who was married with a couple of kids,” he says before adding, “I guess I don’t like who I am.”
It’s a startling beginning to a movie that uses his music and a series of celebrity talking heads like Steve Earle, Sarah McLachlan, Geddy Lee, Anne Murray and Alec Baldwin, who helpfully adds, “This was a guy who sang poems,” to tell the story. Traditionally Lightfoot’s enigmatic approach to his biography has left many questions unanswered in the media. That doesn’t change much here, although he seems to have allowed open access to his home and is occasionally candid in the contemporary interviews. “I regret a lot of things,” he says near the end of the film. “I caused emotional trauma in people, particularly some women, the women I was closest to. I feel very, very badly about it.”
“If You Could Read My Mind” doesn’t skip over sensitive biographical points. His relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith, a woman he loved who was later accused of killing John Belushi and the infidelities that marred his personal life are examined, although with a light touch that respects his privacy.
Supporting the storytelling are interestingly curated images. From rare clips of his early performances on the CBC and on the stages of Yonge Street taverns and Yorkville coffee houses and archival photos of the legendary, star-studded parties he threw at his Rosedale home, to old footage of his parents and behind-the-scenes images of his acting debut in Desperado—“You’ll never win an Oscar,” said co-star Bruce Dern, “but you’re fun to work with.”—the doc offers a comprehensive visual essay of Canadiana, Gordon Lightfoot style.
Ultimately the best documentary of Lightfoot’s storied life is his work, tunes like “Sundown” and “Rainy Day People” that suggest everything he has to say is in his songs. “Your personal experience and your emotional stress,” he says, “finds its way in by way of your unconscious mind over into the mind of reality and translates itself into your lyrics. And you don’t even know that is happening.”