'Let the Canary Sing' - Cyndi Lauper's life and career in new documentary

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 18, 2024
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Cyndi Lauper in the documentary 'Let the Canary Sing'
Cyndi Lauper in the documentary 'Let the Canary Sing'

When one recalls 1980s musical culture, the name Cyndi Lauper almost comes immediately to mind, perhaps second to her rival, Madonna. Her hit song, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," with its accompanying video (viewed one billion times on YouTube), was not only one of the defining pop tunes of that era, but has become a third-wave feminist anthem.

The documentary "Let the Canary Sing" a nostalgic look at her life and career, is currently streaming on Paramount +, directed by Alison Ellwood, who four years ago made an excellent film about "The Go-Go's." While well-intentioned and intermittently fascinating due to its subject, Canary in comparison seems safe and staid. Financed by Sony, Lauper's record company, as well as the sponsor of her upcoming Girls Just Want to Have Fun Farewell Tour, at times the documentary seems like an infomercial.

Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s  

Lauper was not an overnight success and was 30 when her first album "She's So Unusual," (including the controversial hit "She Bop" about masturbation) became a global sensation in 1983. Now 71, Lauper is willing to reflect back on her past work, but gives only a small peek.

Born to a Sicilian family in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, her famous thick, distinctive Noo Yawk accent is well-earned. But her parents divorced early in her life, her mother remarried to what became an abusive stepfather. Her older lesbian sister and best friend Ellen had left the family years earlier.

At 17, a wild, drug-using Lauper escaped and went to live with Ellen in New York City. She began playing in cover bands, imitating her idol Janis Joplin, but almost harming her voice in the process.

In 1980 she became a singer for the band Blue Angel, a Blondie-wannabe that missed the New Wave era of the 1970s. Her volcanic presence on stage and near operatic voice led to pleas for her to go solo. She acquired a new manager David Wolff, but in order to get free, she had to sue her previous manager, who virtually bankrupted her. The case wound up in court, but the judge ruling in her favor at the end of the trial, pronounced, "Let the canary sing."

Cyndi Lauper  

Oh, girls
Lauper didn't write "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." It was a rock song by Robert Hazard in which he fixates on all the women with whom he'd like to sleep. When producer Rick Chertoff suggested the song to Lauper, she screamed no, the lyrics were too sexist and male-centric. But she revamped it from a female point of view, that fun meant freedom because girls want to have fun the same way men do, but also as a way for women to be liberated from societal expectations and workplace demands.

When it was released as a single in 1983, it went nowhere until Lauper cannily allied herself with the professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano (he played her father in the song's video) as well as this very popular sport and then it began soaring to the top of the charts.

Besides her impressive voice, she adopted a street-kook persona, her style creating her public image almost like a visual art form with her candy-colored hair, decoupage thrift shop layers of vintage clothes, earrings, bangles, and fishnet stockings. This persona was as carefully engineered as her albums. Her flair serendipitously coincided with the birth of MTV videos, of which she became adept. She was also the first to insist her videos be close-captioned. In 1985, she won the best new artist Grammy award.

Her second album, "True Colors," three long years later, was a critical and financial success, selling seven million copies, featuring the hit song "True Colors," written in grief after one of her best friends died of AIDS. The song has become a gay anthem.

From the start of her career, she has been a fierce advocate for gay and transgender rights (using queer people in her videos), even testifying before a Senate subcommittee about LGBTQ youth homelessness.

Her third album was a critical and financial disappointment. She released ten more records, including blues, country, American songbook standards, dance albums, yet none of them were successful. Her biggest accomplishment came when gay playwright Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book for the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots," about a struggling shoe factory trying to save itself by making boots for drag queens, asked her to write the music and lyrics. She won a Tony award, becoming the first woman to win solo, for Best Original Score.

Cyndi Lauper in the documentary 'Let the Canary Sing'  

Lauper seems permanently entrenched in the 1980s, which is sad because with her talent, she should have been a bigger star on the order of a Madonna or Michael Jackson. One of the frustrating aspects of this documentary, is that it fails to go into depth about her as an artist. It will bring up her abusive stepfather, but we don't learn how it impacted her or even whether or not it ever became material for her craft. Her music career was declining throughout the '90s, plus she attempted to carve an acting career, which went nowhere as well. We don't know why or how frustrating it must have been for her to feel rejected by her audience and whether that stimulated her to go in a different direction with her creativity.

Greatest hits
The documentary, which features no criticism of her and certainly no self-criticism, seems designed to remind audiences about her previous work, so they will attend her greatest hits tour concert, her final one, which one supposes will provide a nest egg for her retirement. There are hints about how Cyndi Lauper became Cyndi Lauper, but nothing about how her public image might have become an albatross artistically.

You get the impression you are never seeing Lauper's true colors. This is a shame, because she's a remarkable unconventional woman with a generous, compassionate heart, but also has definite ideas about what does and doesn't work musically, so even her flaws would be instructive. But her willingness to be vulnerable is limited.

There are hints of regret about what might have been, but with characteristic resilience she marches onward. As she says in the film, "Who the hell I am is who the hell I am." And with such bluntness, queer audiences always appreciative of her support and advocacy, are likely to say that's more than enough.


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