In the opening scene of “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” a companionable and highly entertaining documentary about the folk-pop troubadour of Canada, Lightfoot, now 81, sits at home with his wife, Kim, and watches clips of himself on Canadian television singing the 1965 song “For Lovin’ Me,” an ode to the arrogant adulterer he once was. Back when he wrote the song, Lightfoot was married, with a couple of kids. “At the time,” he recalls, “it just came out of my brain. I didn’t know what chauvinism was.” He chuckles, sheepishly, at his insensitivity. Yet looking at the clips, we see the brashness that made Lightfoot a star. In those early days, he resembled Ryan O’Neal with a hint of Nick Nolte; he had the kind of squinty rugged golden-god looks you’d see on the hero of a television Western. And even then, what he could do with a note was extraordinary. It would ring out, soft and shimmering but clear as a bell, with that quickened vibrato that could melt you.
Some pop songs are inescapably happy, like “Give It Up” by KC and the Sunshine Band or “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, and some are sad, like “Eleanor Rigby” or Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” But then there’s the kind of song that’s happy and sad at the same time, like a gorgeous splash of late-afternoon sun glinting through the rain. That’s the sound of Gordon Lightfoot. In the ’60s and ’70s, the words and melodies poured out of him, and they often expressed an indelible melancholy, yet there was a rapture to it all, a feeling that Lightfoot was transported by the things he was singing about. His most famous lyric (addressed to the woman he was married to when he wrote “For Lovin’ Me”) was, “If you could read my mind, love,/What a tale my thoughts could tell…” And listening to Lightfoot’s songs, you just about could read his mind. He wrote with the sincerity of Dylan (who he was friends with), in a style that merged folk and country and pop, but the liquid-gold lilt of his voice turned every ballad into a confession.
In “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” Lightfoot looks like a different person than the wavy-haired preppie cowboy he was in his heyday. He now has a been-around-the-block Chet Baker gauntness, with long hair combed straight back and falling down over his shoulders and features that are aged but sharp and lean, giving him the slithery look of a rock ‘n’ roll wizard. He’s a survivor of excess — battles with the bottle, three marriages, plus two other relationships in which he had children (he has six kids in all). Yet he was the kind of obsessive songwriter who turned that trauma into incandescence.
We hear testimonials, from people like Sarah McLachlan and Steve Earle, about his immaculate quality as a musician: the way his 12-string guitar was always perfectly tuned for that impeccable ringing sound (he was such a powerful and propulsive guitarist that for a long time he didn’t need drums), the way he wrote his songs out on music paper, notating the melodies like cantatas, and the way the tunes themselves were built like intricate pieces of cabinetry. From the start, his songs were covered by a dazzling array of artists, and we see versions of the heartbreakingly beautiful 1966 ballad “Early Morning Rain” sung by Peter, Paul and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins, and Elvis in his white suit. (The film then jumps decades ahead to versions by Paul Weller and Neil Young.)
We also hear about what a revolutionary figure Lightfoot was in his native Canada — which sounds quaint and a little dull, but isn’t, because what he did, in effect, was to invent pop stardom for a country that was seeking its identity. In 1967, Canada celebrated 100 years of existence, and amid the centennial its citizens were asking themselves, “Okay, we’re here. But who are we?” That’s a question that popular culture was put on earth to address, and Lightfoot arrived at the perfect moment to answer it. In the documentary, Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush, says, “He sent the message to the world that we’re not just a bunch of lumberjacks and hockey players up here. We’re capable of sensitivity and poetry.”
Lightfoot’s rise to stardom channeled the excitement of the era. There are marvelous clips of him performing in the coffee houses of Yorkville (which was then the bohemian district of Toronto), and in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, and it didn’t take long for him to attract the attention of Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who signed him. He recorded his first album for Warner Bros./Reprise, “Sit Down Young Stranger,” in 1970, and the record bombed. But the song that would become its breakout smash inspired Warner Bros. to reissue the album after changing its title to “If You Could Read My Mind,” at which point it leapt onto the charts and ignited Lightfoot’s career.
“If You Could Read My Mind” has been directed, by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, in a conventional, let’s-show-the-warts-but-not-get-too-close-to-them style, but the film could still be seen as a companion piece to “David Crosby: Remember My Name” — another documentary about a fabled counterculture rocker looking back on his demons. Lightfoot’s were less dramatic, but they provided their pleasures and took their toll. A vivid section of the film sketches in his post-divorce life in a Toronto apartment complex, an experience he chronicled in the song “The Circle is Small.” His girlfriend at the time was Cathy Smith, the woman who (years later) injected John Belushi with a speedball the night he died, and Lightfoot addressed his relationship with her in the delectably ominous “Sundown,” the closest thing that he (or maybe anyone) ever wrote to a folkie film noir.
His drinking, on the other hand, had a slow-creep effect, dramatized by his appearance in the 1982 music video for “Blackberry Wine,” where he looks as depressed as he is bloated. But Lightfoot ultimately got sober, taking canoe trips to the Canadian wilds as his refuge, and the film tries for something poetic by saving “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for its last chapter, as if that majestic sea shanty about the mysterious and tragic sinking of a bulk carrier on Lake Superior expressed Lightfoot’s own propensity to hit bottom. The song was written and recorded in 1976, well before he conquered his alcoholic demons. But it’s presented as a kind of mystical deliverance, right down to the fascinating story of how on the recording that was put out, what we hear is Lightfoot’s band playing the song for the very first time; they could never again attain the transcendence of that performance. “If You Could Read My Mind” celebrates how Gordon Lightfoot turned his own wreckage into something sturdy and sublime.