If You Could Read My Mind (2019)

Gordon Lightfoot is 82 years old. This film, named after one of his most famous songs, tells his musical journey. While it is impossible to separate the music from his life, the focus is primarily on his songs and their impact.

I was fortunate to see him in concert last year in a small venue. I wrote a blog about it. The danger of seeing a performer late in their life is to witness the decline of their amazing talent. That was my experience with Gordon Lightfoot. His once powerful and lilting voice was thin and somewhat raspy. Putting that aside, it was enjoyable to hear the songs he wrote and were staples of radio.

The film does a couple of things. First, Lightfoot is an incredible part of Canadian music. As an American who only knew of his 1970s hits, I realized he is probably the important musical influence in Canadian musical history. He arrived at a time when Canada was celebrating their 100 year anniversary of unification. His songs, evoking Canadian history and folklore, was right on time. Second, Lightfoot has been an incredible influence on other songwriters. His influence may not be as obvious as Dylan on songwriters, but his poetic and deeply thoughtful lyrics and intricate melodies were often imitated and his songs widely covered. If you were not aware of the strength of his songwriting, you will by the end of this film.

The film mixes interviews of Lightfoot with archival and recent performances, and with interviews of his band and others along his long journey. This is no whitewash, Lightfoot’s flaws and failings, with women, alcohol and stardom, are told. What you may not realize is how much he drew from these painful experiences in crafting his songs.

Lightfoot was in his early 30s before he had any serious hits. His albums in the late 1960s provided some minor hits, but also exposed his songs to other artists who recorded them.

Lightfoot’s easygoing songs are hard to categorize. Are they folk, country or pop? They are all three; and he arrived with “If You Could Read My Mind” just as the singer-songwriter era was unfolding.

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian national treasure. He is not a saint, but he is revered and humble in that he can still what he loves. Sadly, the pandemic will rob him of a year of live performances. The film did encourage me to see what songs of his I have in my collection. Few singers have a voice like Gordon Lightfoot. In his prime, those story songs were magical.

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