In advance of the world premiere of Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the film’s co-director Joan Tosoni spoke to The Globe and Mail about the beloved balladeer and which of his stories she and co-director Martha Kehoe chose to tell and which they did not.
What was your relationship with Gordon Lightfoot before you began making this film?
I’ve known him for a long time. So has Martha Kehoe, who co-directed the film with me. I first met him at the 1976 Olympics benefit at Maple Leaf Gardens, which we see some of in the film. I was an assistant director on the show. Subsequent to that, we’ve done many things together over the years. One of which, where our trust started to grow, was the documentary Country Gold, which Martha and I did for CBC in the early 1980s. Gord has to trust people before he’ll let them at him.
How did this new documentary come to be?
John Brunton, of Insight Productions, always had it in his mind that he wanted to do a documentary on Gord. Finally, five years ago, we thought, “Let’s get it done.” Gord agreed right away. It did take five years to get the funding, though.
Because of the licensing fees for the music and archival footage?
Right. That’s expensive, which meant the budget was higher than it would be otherwise. So, it took a while, but Gord was very patient. He said, “Joan, it’ll happen when it happens.”
You spoke to a lot of people in the film. Anyone you wanted to get but didn’t?
Well, everybody wants Bob Dylan, because he’s Bob Dylan. We would have loved to get him, but we didn’t. He doesn’t do interviews. Neil Young is in the film, performing Early Morning Rain at Farm Aid, but he’s a busy guy. Our schedules never came together. In the end, not getting those guys didn’t hurt the film. I hope it didn’t.
Other than his current wife, no family members appear in the film. Why not?
We decided to explore his artistic output. He’s a very private man. He has six children, with four different women. Once you start getting into that, it could be a film in itself. We wanted to get inside his inner workings as an artist. His troubled life, especially in the early days, with his divorces, that’s a lot to go into. We just decided it wasn’t in the scope of this film.
I was surprised there’s no mention of his near death, in 2002, when he suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm in his abdomen. Why no mention of it?
It was in the cut at one point. Really, the hardest thing about this film was paring down what belonged and what did not. We just decided we had other stuff that we’d rather see. We felt his near death would put a damper on things. He’s still going strong. It’s a choice we made.
Well, I see it as a glaring omission in his story. On the other hand, no Lightfoot fan will likely complain about the footage of him playing Movin’ On at the old Riverboat folk club in Toronto.
That was a promotional video, made by CN Rail. He wrote the song for that film. We knew it was great, and that it had to be in our film. You know, the editing process was not easy. Everybody loves Gord. We could have had two hours of nothing but people praising him.
Everybody loves him, but does he love himself? He comes off as regretful in the film.
He actually says, early in the film, “I guess I don’t like who I am.” He’s a tortured guy, and there’s a sense that he’s now atoning for things. He has regrets, and he clearly states that. He wants to be better. He talks about his band, and that they always want to make the shows the best they can be. That’s him trying to be a good person. Trying, I think, to be worthy.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind makes its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 25 to May 6), on April 27 and 30. Information at www.hotdocs.ca
The film also screens at Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival (May 2 to 12), on May 4 and 12. Information at doxafestival.ca