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Review: 'Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind'

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is one of the best music documentaries I’ve ever seen.

I have long been a fan of Gordon Lightfoot’s work from the very beginning.

I still recall seeing him in concert for the first time at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh in 1971.

He was exceptional.

The experience was unforgettable.

I wish I could tell you how many nights I strummed and sang his ballads on my acoustic guitar over the years.

Lightfoot is a national treasure in Canada where he was born and raised.

His fame and popularity opened the doors for so many other Canadian musicians and performers who followed him over the years, such as The Guess Who, Bachman/Turner Overdrive and Rush.

In his heyday, he was a ruggedly handsome balladeer with a rich, distinctive voice that was immediately identifiable.

That, coupled with his raw talent and hardworking perfectionism guaranteed the skyrocketing success that followed.

It’s a bit of a shock then that the movie opens with an almost unrecognizable Gordon Lightfoot, who was in his 80s when the movie was filmed.

He is thin, gaunt and a bit angry.

Even more shocking are his comments about his breakout hit "That’s What You Get for Loving Me" (“I hate this f---in’ song.”).

In hindsight, he is troubled and regretful about writing that song at a time when he was married with two children.

Despite all that, it was the covers of that tune by Peter, Paul and Mary and Johnny Cash that ignited his explosive debut into the folk/pop music scene in the Sixties.

Gordon Lightfoot is a complex man.

And the movie, named after perhaps his most famous song "If You Could Read My Mind," is an attempt to delve into the mind of this rare talent.

It charts his story from his singing in a church choir as a young boy (featuring a solo audio clip of his young, angelic voice) through his short stint in a barbershop quartet, through music school and the steady path that led to stardom.

Along the way, it’s a who’s who of just about every major folk/ballad singer/songwriter of his era.

And that included Bob Dylan who Lightfoot admired and analyzed.

As sometimes happens when one’s wildest dreams come true, the two eventually met and became friends.

What’s particularly exciting about this film is both the magic of the music and the majesty of Lightfoot’s homeland, Canada. The images are stunning including the montages and even the title graphics.

The file footage, shot on color 16mm film, is vibrantly restored.

It includes flashback glimpses of Lightfoot and interviews with his parents that seem fresh and timeless.

The movie often drifts back and forth from the present to the past, effortlessly and beautifully bridging the story together.

Though time and some hard living have taken their toll on Lightfoot’s body and appearance, his spirit and musical talent still burn bright.

There is poignance to the movie’s structure and approach.

It’s not a sugar-coated tale.

On one level, it is the somewhat predictable story arc of many musical stars—their rise to fame, their fall from grace and sometimes their ability to rise from the ashes of their own self-destructiveness.

It’s all here.

However, the particulars prevent the story from ever becoming predictable, trite or cliché.

It’s a remarkable story, supported by inciteful interviews with the likes of Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Anne Murray, Steve Earle, Geddy Lee and Alec Baldwin, just to name a few.

Filmmakers Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni dig deep into Lightfoot’s psyche and private life.

It’s a candid look into the man considered to be “the most important artist in the Canadian music industry.”

All that is explored down to the incidental details such as Lightfoot’s meticlous care of his acoustic guitars.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is a joy to see and hear.

Performances and covers of many of his greatest hits like "Early Mornin’ Rain," "Sundown," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (recorded in just one take) are featured.

If you’re a fan of Gordon Lightfoot and his music, you’ll love this documentary.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work, this film might be the epiphany that will make you a fan who will love this documentary.

One of the comments from the movie really stuck in my head—“If there was a Canadian Mount Rushmore, Gordon Lightfoot would be on it.”

When you see the film, you sense that this isn’t hyperbole.


Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind opens virtually On July 29 at the Film Forum in New York, Laemmle in Los Angeles and dozens of additional theaters throughout the country.

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