Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Let The Canary Sing’ on Paramount+, A Documentary Bursting With Cyndi Lauper’s Boisterous Personality

There had never been an official doc about Cyndi Lauper, but Let the Canary Sing, now streaming on Paramount+, is here to change that. Directed by Alison Ellwood, and built around candid new interviews with the Grammy Winner (1985’s Best New Artist), Tony winner (Lauper wrote the music for Kinky Boots in 2012), and Emmy winner (remember when she was on Mad About You?), Let the Canary Sing is named for what a court declared, back when bickering over her management and career direction threatened to shut down Cyndi Lauper for good. It did not. And Let the Canary Sing moves breezily through her eras, from her childhood in New York City, her breakthrough success in 1983, and the evolution of her career thereafter. Members of Lauper’s family, her friends, and her collaborators offer context, including Boy George, Patti LaBelle, and Billy Porter.     

The Gist: “If you do what you love…poof! Magic!” That’s the short but pointed summation Cyndi Lauper offers for her professional life as a singer, songwriter, actress, and vocal advocate for LGBTQ the community. Lauper, now 70, has been doing what she loves since the late 1970s, when she started singing in rock bands around her native New York City, and Let the Canary Sing features a lot of archival footage and photos from that era, in the time before the blazed-out and teased-up hairstyles, bold outfits full of layers and lace and sequins, and trademark heightened pitch that marked her popular emergence with 1983’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” But the fun, sassy, kind of loopy energy that defined She’s So Unusual, her debut solo album, and its accompanying media appearances – we see Lauper cracking up Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and generally being her unpredictable, unvarnished, and utterly charming self – had to come from somewhere, and Canary also travels back to Lauper’s childhood in Brooklyn and Queens, where her artistic influences grew even as an abusive stepfather forced her from the family home.

Interviews with Lauper’s older sister Elen and younger brother Fred help develop the picture of someone who loved to sing, dance, and write songs, and was never willing to compromise her beliefs for anything. (Contemplative, watercolor-like animated sequences provide a lot of the visual.) “If I had no power,” Lauper says of the limitations she was subjected to, both in her homelife and as a woman in society, “the only power I did have was to scare the fucking crap out of everybody.” And as she grew into her distinctive singing style and four-octave ability, Lauper also didn’t compromise on style. With her huge voice and personality, says publicist Katie Valk, “Cyndi Lauper was everything that I would’ve wanted in an artist to work with.”

Let the Canary Sing focuses pretty heavily on the early eighties pop era that first made Lauper a star, and includes interviews with manager and former boyfriend Dave Wolff and musician and songwriter Rob Hyman. (Lauper wrote “Time After Time” with Hyman, and they perform a touching piano-led version of the song here.) But it squeezes in some of the ups and downs of her career as well, the stylistic shifts she made in pursuit of her art, and even her testimony before a Senate subcommittee as part of her long standing support for LGBT youth. “It was difficult,” Cyndi Lauper says of times in her career where the direction might not have been clear, even to her. “But I got to here, and I’m still creating.” 

Photo: Paramount

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Let the Canary Sing director Alison Ellwood has also helmed documentaries about the pioneering all female rock combo The Go-Go’s and the influential Laurel Canyon music scene of 1960s Los Angeles. And the music and personalities of Cyndi Lauper’s smash debut era leap off the screen in The Greatest Night in Pop, the recent doc about the 1985 recording of charity single “We Are the World.” 

Performance Worth Watching: Even now, it would be a bold promotional play to put a professional wrestler in a music video, playing the father of a pop star. But that’s exactly what Cyndi Lauper did in 1983, casting ‘Captain’ Lou Albano as her loudmouth dad in the memorable clip for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and Let the Canary Sing contains a ton of great footage from that era, as Lauper went on to appear at World Wrestling Federation events as the manager of a female wrestling team. Viral marketing! It’s not just for the 21st century. 

Memorable Dialogue: “No, not the way it was,” Cyndi Lauper says when asked about the original version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” written by Robert Hazard in 1979. It would go on to become her hit debut single. But its perspective needed alteration. “It was wrong for me. It was a masculine story. ‘Oh mama dear we’re not the fortunate ones,’ because girls want to have fun. And everytime we wanna have fun, what are we? We’re whores. We’re problematic.” Instead, Lauper made the song a thematic celebration of summer, youth, and women enjoying life on their own terms.  

Sex and Skin:I can’t stop messin’ with the danger zone…” In 1983, when Lauper released “She Bop” as the third single from She’s So Unusual, its cheeky lyrics about masturbation sparked conversation and controversy. Conversation with Dr. Ruth Westheimer – in an old talk show clip, Lauper explains to the sex therapist and media personality what it means to “bop” – and controversy, as the song was included on the “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of supposedly naughty pop and rock songs compiled by Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Council.

LET-THE-CANARY-SING
Photo: Paramount

Our Take: It had to become an anthem, says of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in Let the Canary Sing. It had to, because they had worked to write it in such a way that it expressed freedom and fun and female empowerment. “You want me to start a revolution?” Lauper says of how she felt in those days. “My favorite thing.” And the doc enters a celebratory stretch of Cyndi Lauper becoming the biggest, most boisterous version of Cyndi Lauper in real time, for the benefit of an American popular culture scene that still expected people to say inside their boxes. “You are a kick in the head,” Carson tells her during one of her lively Tonight Show appearances, and in that moment the comedian and host is standing on the patriarchal perch Lauper had absolutely no interest in respecting.

Let the Canary Sing takes the right tone throughout. It’s a testimonial to Lauper’s talent and drive, of course, with the gushing quotes from stars like Boy George and Patti LaBelle to back that up. But Lauper does a lot of that backing herself, in her forthright interviews and in the wealth of live footage that features throughout the doc. As a singer, her style is so striking and full of volume, that as Kinky Boots star Billy Porter says, she doesn’t have to submit to anyone else’s whim. And over four decades of a career and counting, she never has.   

Our Call: STREAM IT. Not quite a career-spanning retrospective, Let the Canary Sing is more an affirmation of the messages Cyndi Lauper has always transmitted through her music: if you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you’re going, there is courage in standing up for yourself and your plan, and to never stop furiously being who you long to be. Let the Canary Sing lets Cyndi Lauper’s true colors shine through.

Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.  

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