Monday, August 24, 2020

New Documentaries: Gordon Lightfoot, The Band, and Flannery O’Connor

Gordon Lightfoot in Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (2019)

The Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot attained fame in the mid-1960s and in his prime – that is, until 1973 or 1974 – he turned out an album every year. He had a sweet, silver-laced voice and he wrote evocative ballads with understated poetic lyrics (like “The Last Time I Saw Her Face” and “Affair on 8th Avenue”) and big-boned, bardic folk anthems that dramatized small and large historical topics, the most famous – and best – of which was “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” When I was in high school in Montreal in the early days of his celebrity and the late days of the folk movement, you couldn’t attend a party without someone showing up with a guitar, and you were dead certain to hear the trilogy or “Early Morning Rain,” or both. (The other guaranteed solo was “Suzanne” by that other Canadian musical legend, Leonard Cohen.) Before his writing lost its freshness and his voice wore down to a craggy thinness, I bought everything Lightfoot recorded, and I saw him in concert four times, once at Carnegie Hall.

Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (named for the title song on one of the most popular – though, I would insist, nowhere near the best – of his albums) is rather fascinating, because it’s so revealing, and outside of his concert career he’s always been reticent as a public figure. He’s famously curmudgeonly, though his displays of genuinely bad temper were linked to his drinking before he gave it up, years ago, at the urging of his sister. Like most sober alcoholics he’s open about his imbibing, but also, more surprisingly, about his treatment of wives and girlfriends. (He has six children from four different relationships; we meet his parents, but not one of his sons and daughters makes an appearance in the movie.) At the beginning of the documentary, he and his current wife, Kim Hasse, watch a clip of him singing one of the songs from his first (self-titled) album, “For Loving Me,” in which the singer protests that the woman whose life he’s made miserable (“Everything you had is gone / As you can see”) got what she bargained for. Lightfoot is  so disgusted that he wrote it when he had a wife and kids that he makes Kim turn it off. Later in the film he admits that he feels sorry for the unhappiness he inflicted upon the women who were close to him. We all assume that the love songs written by our favorite recording artists are autobiographical, even when the whole world doesn’t know whom they’re about - that Joni Mitchell wrote “For the Roses” about Steve Stills or that all the slow songs on Taylor Swift’s “Red” were inspired by her break-up with Jake Gyllenhaal. But likely that impression is more often a fantasy, a way of feeling close to songwriters whose songs of lost love touch our hearts. From the evidence of Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind Lightfoot really does seem to have written a large number of his songs about the women he slept with. We learn in the documentary, for example, that “The Circle Is Small,” a bitter condemnation of an unfaithful girlfriend, was a reflection on a community of friends who all lived in the same apartment building in Toronto and hopped in and out of each other’s beds. And his angry reaction to “For Loving Me” indicates that there was really no distance between the singer and the man who wrote the song.

That opening sequence put me off initially; I was afraid it was a knee-jerk #MeToo impulse. But Lightfoot seems genuinely uninterested in projecting an image, and genuinely unpretentious. My respect for him grew as the movie went on. When I attended his shows I found him distant and a little chilly between songs, which was in striking contrast to the warmth of his singing. The documentary brings out a sly sense of humor and an instinctive rejection of inauthenticity.

Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel in Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019).

The highest high point of The Band’s sixteen uninterrupted years of touring and recording together was its finale, the concert at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976 that Martin Scorsese filmed, triumphantly, as The Last Waltz, and released two years later. The five members of the group – Robbie Robertson, who never sang lead vocals but wrote most of the songs; keyboard genius Garth Hudson; Richard Manuel, who sounded like a heartbroken nightingale; Rick Danko, who looked like a young De Niro and had so much energy that he swung from side to side when he played; and the handsome southern gentleman Levon Helm, the only non-Canadian in the quintet, who brought to drumming an unprecedented lyrical gift – were all playing and singing at the peak of their powers, even though in truth three of them (Helm, Manuel and Danko) were addicted to heroin and the band had been falling apart for some time. I was twenty-seven when The Last Waltz came out; The Band was (and still is) my all-time favorite group, and the movie, which remains the finest rockumentary ever made, was a signal moment of my youth. When it was remastered and re-released to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary I could hardly wait to see it again on the big screen, but then I found I had to fight to get through it. Manuel had killed himself almost a decade and a half earlier. Danko had died the previous year of congestive heart failure, and at the end of his life, when his body fell apart from drug and alcohol abuse, he looked saggy and bloated. The movie now reduced me to helpless tears.   

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, directed by Daniel Roher and based on Robertson’s memoir Testimony, captures some of what I was feeling when I watched Scorsese’s movie twenty years ago – the feeling of greatness escalating into tragedy. Of all North American bands, The Band was the most highly revered among their fellow musicians, as evidenced by the interviews in the documentary. Their albums didn’t rise to the top of the charts, but they were musicians’ musicians – the band most highly revered by their peers, as evidenced by the interviews in the documentary. They had begun as The Hawks, a back-up band for the spirited rocker Ronnie Hawks, graduated to being Bob Dylan’s back-up musicians – they toured with him all over the world after he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival and his folkie fans booed him wherever he went – and then settled down in a communal house in Woodstock, New York to write and record songs, many of them masterpieces, that were so distinctive that it’s as if they had embarked on a third artistic life completely different from either of the previous two. They were the embodiment of the late-sixties personal and artistic ideal: five buddies living together and making some of the most sublime popular music anyone had ever heard. And then, as Robertson, who narrates the movie, tells us, it all went up in flames.

This isn’t a great documentary but it’s a tremendously affecting one. However, it’s baffling in one regard. Until (from all reports) Levon Helm’s drug-taking made him paranoid and angry and he turned on Robertson, they were the best of friends, from the moment Robbie joined The Hawks, before the other three signed on as well. Robbie’s love for Levon is the linchpin of the memoir; he has never gotten over the dissolution of their friendship. (Helm’s daughter Amy – a gifted singer in her own right – called Robertson when her dad lay dying in the hospital, but he arrived too late to see him alive.) It’s understandable that this sadness provides the heaviest weight in the last section of the movie, but I couldn’t figure out why Roher skipped over Manuel’s and Danko’s deaths. It was, after all, a brotherhood of five.  

Flannery O'Connor (Photo courtesy of CNS/11th Street Lot)

The dunderheaded recent decision of Loyola University Maryland to remove Flannery O’Connor’s name from one of its dormitories because she does not “reflect Loyola’s Jesuit values” has been fervently and articulately repudiated by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, the author of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, in the August 3 edition of Commonweal. O’Donnell was appalled to find that Paul Elie, in a New Yorker article called “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?,” had used passages from her book to suggest that the great southern writer, who addressed racism in profound ways in stories like “The Artificial Nigger,” was herself a racist. And in our current cancel culture – which makes no room for complexity and officially disapproves of anyone from an earlier era who didn’t benefit from contemporary correctness – that was all Loyola Maryland needed to remove her name. What happened to patience with ambiguity?

By dramatic contrast, the excellent new documentary Flannery by Mark Bosco (a Jesuit and a professor at Georgetown) and Elizabeth Coffman, deals with the subject of O’Connor and race in a way that honors the complications of a brilliant, quirky, uncategorizable white writer who grew up in the South in the mid-twentieth century. (She was born in Savannah.) The film’s most eloquent analysis of that particular subject comes from the African American literary critic Hilton Als – though I would say that only an idiot could read O’Connor’s work and dismiss her as a racist, and of course, as O’Donnell points out in her Commonweal article, it’s highly unlikely that most people at Loyola Maryland who voiced their disapproval of O’Connor (like the students who signed a petition to remove her name from the dorm) had read a word she wrote. The movie, of course, deals with many other aspects of her art and her life, like her relationship with the mother she lived with for most of her life, her close (mostly epistolary) friendships, her romantic solitariness and – most interesting to my mind – her literary development, which began in earnest when she was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was mentored by Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and others. The interviewees, who are as thoughtful and compelling as a documentary about O’Connor demands, include her editor Robert Giroux, who became a devotee as soon as he read her first collection of stories and published everything she ever wrote; writers like Mary Gordon, Tobias Wolff, Alice Walker and Alice McDermott; her friends Mary Dean Lee and Erik Langkjaer; and the actors Brad Dourif, who starred in John Huston’s film of O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and the Texan Tommy Lee Jones, a lifelong fan of her work. Dourif’s and Jones’s contributions are among the most thoughtful. The movie stands firm against the idiotic notion that the only heroes we can salute are saints – as if a saint could write with any depth about human experience.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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