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Review: Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

May 24, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a documentary about the beloved Canadian folk musician co-directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe, opens with Lightfoot watching old footage of himself performing his classic song “For Loving You,” and commenting on how he wishes he hadn’t written something so chauvinistic and has stopped playing it for that very reason.

At 81 years old, Lightfoot appears similarly open and reflective throughout the film, a career retrospective that pays tribute to his music and sheds more light on some of his most famous songs, including the titular track “If You Could Read My Mind” which became his first big hit, while showcasing a wealth of invaluable archival footage.

Lightfoot is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most prolific singer-songwriters, with a library of classic songs that are instantly recognizable, all of which he wrote on his own. A good part of the film actually serves as a way for other musicians including Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan and Geddy Lee, as well as the actor Alec Baldwin whose presence in the film oddly makes sense when you hear the passion with which he speaks about Lightfoot’s music, to talk about how his music has effected them.

At one point, Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings reflect upon how they were inspired to start writing their own songs for the Guess Who after going to an early Gordon Lightfoot concert without really having any idea who he was, and leaving blown away. These testimonials make up much of the middle stretch of Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, and it becomes clear that Tosoni and Kehoe intended their film to first and foremost serve as a celebration of his music.

Like many Canadians, I grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s music, so of course I enjoyed this film. I do feel like the filmmakers could have gone a bit deeper into more aspects of his personal life, as they do gloss over some of the darker stuff. Lightfoot’s struggles with alcoholism are addressed, and his failed marriages and sometimes troubled relationships with women are briefly alluded to. But this stuff is never fully brought to the surface, which makes the film feel a bit incomplete as a biography.

But purely as a tribute to his music, and how much his songs have been shaped by and helped shape the Canadian landscape, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is often quite lovely to watch. And if you are a Gordon Lightfoot fan, it’s hard not to be moved by the final moments, cutting back and forth between performances then and now.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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