Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind ends with a montage of the title subject singing the title song through the decades.
The sights and sounds are startling, as Lightfoot has gone through so many physical changes that he’s virtually unrecognizable in a number of the clips. He’s also the rare vocalist whose voice has gotten higher over the years.
Running 90 minutes and spanning virtually all of Lightfoot’s then-79 years – the film features an audio recording of the future superstar singing soprano in the church choir through to the almost-octogenarian, still smoking cigarettes, playing the famed Massey Hall before it closed for a major renovation in 2018 – “If You Could Read My Mind” paints a complete portrait of Canada’s favorite son, complete with a bunch of surprises.
One minor shocker – one that can be told without giving away too much – is the final version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is the band’s first take with very few overdubs.
To help advance the story, the contemporary Lightfoot walks the Toronto streets he walked as a young hopeful, telling tales along the way. He sings the songs that made him a Canadian national hero and an American-radio perennial. He and his parents – the singer is a junior, another minor revelation – discuss his drive in an early-career interview. And his many fans – mostly, but not all, fellow Canadians – praise the man they call “Gord” for his ability as singer, songwriter and musician who reads and notates music fluently.
Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan, Steve Earle, Ian and Sylvia and – weirdly – Alec Baldwin are among the artists who marvel at his songs. Neil Young, Glen Campbell Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul and Mary and others sing them in archival clips and audio snippets.
Filmmakers Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni erred in not putting dates on historical footage, leaving viewers to guess when certain performances and interviews took place. And though the documentary mentions his struggles with – and ultimate abandonment of – alcohol, it also ignores health problems, including a stroke, that kept him off the road for long stretches.
Even with that, people who know Lightfoot only from the radio will come away with a deeper appreciation for the artist. And those who own everything he’s ever released will likewise learn a thing or two – or 10.
Lightfoot has regrets – he stopped playing “(That’s What You Get) For Loving Me” after becoming embarrassed by its chauvinism – and wishes he had better treated he women he loved. Ultimately though, Lightfoot – sitting at a desk and pondering his life story – thinks it’s been a pretty good ride overall.
After watching If You Could Read My Mind, it’s easy to see why.