Now 81 years old, Gordon Lightfoot has lived a long life that must have enough juicy color and inspiring trajectory to fill a documentary. The Canadian singer-songwriter is one of those ubiquitous artists, like Hall and Oates, that you take for granted as pleasant aural wallpaper. Longtime fans will eat up Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a fond profile from directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni. But it won’t convince novices that there’s more to Lightfoot than meets the ear.

There are people here you might not expect to see in a Gordon Lightfoot documentary: sure, you fellow Canadian musicians like Anne Murray and maybe even Neil Young are understandable talking heads, but Geddy Lee? Alec Baldwin? These provide a lot of “So They’re a fan?” eyebrows, and the movie has enough visual flair to vary a Wikipedia-like structure as prominent as the young Lightfoot’s cheekbones. But it’s not enough.

The highlights and lowlights of Lightfoot boil down to three signature songs, each introduced at well-timed intervals. At the half hour mark you learn about the title song, which appeared on the 1970 album originally called, Sit Down Young Stranger. By then, Lightfoot had achieved moderate success, largely from other artists’ versions of songs like “Early Morning Rain,” but this was his first big hit under his own voice. He at first resisted label suggestions to change the name of the album to capitalize on its big seller. “I was a prima donna then,” he says now, but he admits that when album sales increased sevenfold after the title change, he was just going to shut up and let the record company do their thing.

With increased success came increased self-destruction; he drank, a lot, and it messed up his life. At the film’s hour mark, Bob Dylan makes an appearance, as does background singer and noted groupie Catherine Smith. She’s part of the sordid tale of “Sundown,” his number one single from 1974 and one of his defining hits. This is where the profile finally picks up some dramatic and salacious steam; Lightfoot was involved with Smith, and their volatile relationship (he reportedly broke her cheekbone one drunken night) inspired one of his best songs. That violent backdrop is a sober indicator of the kind of darkness that can hide behind the most benign-seeming Top 40 hits, but the filmmakers don’t linger on that insight.

Finally, the 1976 release “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which Lightfoot has said is his greatest song, turns up in the final act as the quintessential narrative from one of the ‘70s premiere storytellers. The song was inspired by a carrier ship sinking in Lake Superior in November 1975; Lightfoot recorded the song just a month later, and it became his second-best selling single.

Lightfoot could strike gold with the simple, straightforward structure of “Edmund Fitzgerald,” but Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, with its solid linear framework, remains all too grounded. The story has all the plot points of a redemptive arc: he rose, he fell, he sobered up, he’s lived a long life, he has some regrets. But the film fails to do something that all the great music docs do: it won’t send casual listeners searching for those deep cuts

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, with its solid linear framework, remains all too grounded.
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