Film Doc Reads Gordon Lightfoot's Mind
The venerable Canadian troubadour is the subject of a new film documentary. FYI interviewed the star and the doc's co-directors at his Toronto mansion.
By Kerry Doole
It is a mite challenging to interview the subject of a film documentary about it when, right at the start of the chat, it is revealed that said subject has not viewed it himself.
That was the case recently when we were summoned to Gordon Lightfoot's Bridle Path mansion in one of Toronto's most desirable locales (Drake will soon be the near neighbour of the legendary folk troubadour). Our object was to explore Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a feature portrait of the man and his music that is just now being released in theatres.
The interview was scheduled a few days before the film had its world premiere at the Hot Docs fest in Toronto, and Lightfoot was deliberately waiting for that occasion to see it for the first time. "I want to to see it as part of the group there that haven't seen it yet," he explains.
Given the length of time the project took to come to fruition, what is a few more days after all? The film's co-writers and co-directors, Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, were part of our interview, and Kehoe acknowledges that "it took us a while to bake the cake, about five years."
She also admitted that "Joan and I are nervous [about the premiere]. We want Gord to enjoy it on some level. For him, it's hard, like looking at pictures of yourself through different things. It is a different experience, but we're hoping he'll appreciate the work that went into it and we hope he thinks it's an authentic film."
Our sources report that the film was enthusiastically received at the premiere, and Lightfoot guested with pals The Good Brothers at a post-screening party that also featured performances by Cowboy Junkies, Fergus Hambleton, Skydiggers, and more.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind does a fine job of tracing the ups and downs of Lightfoot's fascinating life, while, perhaps more importantly, also exploring his creative process, the relationship with his long-time band, and the huge impact his work has had on fellow singers and songwriters, from Canada and around the globe.
Given Lightfoot's stature, it is surprising to hear that financing the project encountered problems. In a follow-up interview, Kehoe tells FYI that "along with [renowned producer] John Brunton, we’ve had a documentary on Gordon in mind for a long time. About five years ago, Gord felt he was ready and gave the go-ahead. We shot a day with him in Orillia and made a promotional video to help get funds to make the film."
"CBC was always behind the project, but to tell the story properly, we needed to bring more funding to the table. A doc with a lot of music and footage rights is not cheap. We worked hard to do that, and everything kind of came together last year. Rogers stepped up with three funds, along with Telefilm and Canada Media Fund.
"Finally there was Slaight Communications, without whom we wouldn’t have been able to complete the film. Gary and his father Allan Slaight have been long-time friends and supporters of Gordon Lightfoot, and Slaight Communications played a crucial role in final funding."
After its theatrical run, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind will be broadcast on CBC and CBC Doc Channel in late 2019. Prospects for an international release are also promising, Kehoe reports. "One of our executive producers, John Murray [John Brunton and Gary Slaight are the other two executive producers), was meeting with sales agents at Hot Docs and there’s a lot of interest in the film for international. We were pleased to see how well Gordon is known and admired around the world."
Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni have a long professional relationship with Lightfoot. Back in the early '90s, the pair featured a segment on Lightfoot in their acclaimed music documentary Country Gold and later worked with him on one of the Juno awards telecasts they helmed.
Tosoni recalls the Country Gold filming, noting that then business manager Barry Harvey was very surprised that Gord was so open. Kehoe adds, "we were in your house in Rosedale, Gord. I remember the piano was behind you, and there was the leaded window out the back. It was a beautiful interview."
The trust built up with Lightfoot proved invaluable in the making of the new film. He opened up his house for part of the shoot, noting that "the parking situation is better here than downtown! We had The Good Brothers [longtime friends] in here one afternoon."
The filming of Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind began last June, and Kehoe explains that "the first thing we did were Gord's shows at Massey Hall. We wanted to show him in action there before the Hall closed for renovations."
The singer's vast and rich catalogue of songs is at the core of the film. "We wanted it very much to be about Gord's music," says Tosoni. "We tried to play the songs a little long for what would normally be in a film, but you can't do full justice to his songbook in just one film, even if it was 88 minutes of song after song."
The release of the film comes a year after the publication of Nicholas Jennings' best-selling biography, Lightfoot. Material from that tome has been used for the film, but the timing of the two projects is "coincidental," says Lightfoot. "Nick knew from about 2002 that he was going to do the book. I looked at him one day and said, 'Nick, we're still walking around, let's get it done.'
"I am deeply honoured that there is enough interest in me to do any of this stuff," Lightfoot reflects with typical modesty.
Few singer/songwriters command as much peer respect as Gordon Lightfoot, and a formidable list of stars sing his praises in the documentary. That group includes Steve Earle, Randy Bachman, Tom Cochrane, Burton Cummings, Ronnie Hawkins, The Good Brothers, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Ian Tyson, Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan, Murray McLauchlan, and Sylvia Tyson.
One seemingly unlikely interviewee was US punk rocker Greg Graffin (Bad Religion). Tosoni explains that "Martha came across a solo album by him and noticed that sometimes he sounded quite a bit like Gordon. We subsequently went to see him play at the Horseshoe in Toronto and decided he might give an interesting and unexpected perspective on Lightfoot, which I think he did."
Gordon Lightfoot may have been forced into flipping through his back pages for the film and the book, but he isn't ready for the rocking chair yet. "I just turned 80 years old, and I'm still working," he tells us with obvious pride.
This is a man who has done very well financially from his long and illustrious career, though he does complain that "every time we go out I spend 80 percent of the money on the band and expenses. It is a good thing when we get paid in US dollars! "
Still a perfectionist, Lightfoot sticks to a physical fitness regimen he has followed since 1982. "I still hate going to the gym, and yet I do it so I know I can do good shows," he says.
Good news for his fans is that a new album is in the works. "I have songs that I've found that I'd forgotten about, so I have filled up the song bucket to the point where I know I can make another album, and there will be one.
"We are trying to figure out how to go about it right now. It could be like the Springsteen album Nebraska, but without the harmonica. There is no bass or drums on that record, and that is the way my record will be I think."
Lightfoot's determination to pursue music as his career came at an early age, though in our interview he does reminisce about early jobs. "Growing up in Orillia, I worked in a plant and I drove a truck all through high school. I loved doing that. One of the most interesting times was when I ran a laundry route, up through Muskoka, three days a week, up to Parry Sound.
"A linen supply company had an agency there. I remember this guy, Roy O'Halloran, as every time I went there something would be lost. I used to dread going there! I told that story recently when I played a show at a beautiful little hall in Parry Sound."
Linen delivery's loss was certainly music's gain. Asked to reflect further on his career, the troubadour tells us that "with all sincerity, I am so happy with it. I do wonder where I would be if I hadn't been able to get any covers of my songs. I guess I was trying to prove something at the beginning. I was under contract to write more tunes, and the next thing I knew I'd write another album!"
Gordon Lightfoot is rightfully ranked right up there with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen in the pantheon of great Canadian songsmiths, and all four have had their classic material covered by hundreds of artists. Fittingly, as our interview time expires, Gord leaves us with an anecdote about his compatriot, Joni.
"I was just talking to Elliot Roberts, her manager, five days ago. I have known Joni since 1964. I remember that she [and husband] Chuck had a 4-story walkup in Detroit. She sat down with Tom Rush and me in her kitchen one night, back before she even had a record deal. She played practically her whole first album for us, at her kitchen table."
"Tom went out and recorded three of those songs, and he was the first person to cover Joni's songs."
Not even Mitchell can compare to Lightfoot in terms of songs covered, however. Here is just a partial list of those who have covered his timeless material: Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Judy Collins, Johnny Mathis, Anne Murray, Olivia Newton-John, Sarah McLachlan, Barbra Streisand, Peter Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte, Jane’s Addiction, Richie Havens, Glen Campbell, Headstones, Toby Keith, and Rheostatics.
Unsurprisingly, Gordon Lightfoot has been inducted into both the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Martha Kehoe sums up the man's illustrious career this way: "Making Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind reinforced the knowledge that Gord was meant to do what he did, to create what he did, during his life .. that he had a calling, if you will. And that he worked hard at it, and continues to do so."