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‘Let the Canary Sing’ Review: Cyndi Lauper Doc Is Slight But Serviceable



In her professional life, Cyndi Lauper has been a kaleidoscope of personae: ’80s pop hitmaker; New Wave fashion guru; proto-Third-Wave feminist; LGBTQ activist; Broadway composer and lyricist; chameleon powerhouse vocalist; and bubble gum punk Brooklynese comedian.

Alison Ellwood’s 140-minute Lauper rockumentary Let the Canary Sing uncovers yet another side of the iconic musician — master technician. Lauper’s older sister Ellen describes her as such towards the end of the doc, quaintly encapsulating the film’s thesis. You may think of Lauper as one or all of the above identities, but recognizing her precision as a producer seems to be the only true way to understand her artistry. And like any pop diva, her public image is just as engineered as her albums.

Let the Canary Sing

The Bottom Line

The archival footage is worth the sleepy storytelling.

Let the Canary Sing is slight but competent, a “Cyndi by Cyndi” opportunity for the singer and a choice group of her family, friends and collaborators to nostalgically recount her biography. The film is as conventional as Lauper herself was avant garde. Despite its hagiographical tendencies, however, it does manage to teach the audience a thing or two about the songstress’ early survival skills and the intense production work behind some of her blockbuster singles, including “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Time After Time .”

Like some of her most joyful tracks, the doc goes down easy. It also barely challenges our preconceived perceptions of Lauper’s talent, kindness and sense of humor. In fact, Ellwood posits that Lauper’s biggest flaw may be her stubborn loyalty to other people. How sweet.

Utilizing a mixture of contemporary interviews, archival footage and animated sequences, Ellwood’s form is as straightforward as it comes, which infuses a sleepy quality to the storytelling. I felt myself rev up, though, whenever young Lauper showed up on screen. Whether delivering seamless one-liners in her deliciously nasal Noo Yawk lilt or bopping around on stage with candy-colored hair and decoupage-like layers of apparel, Lauper at her professional height appears positively aerated. (It’s a wonder that Lauper is still known for her asymmetrical post-punk hairdos and funky DIY ensembles considering she came up at the same time scrappy-era Madonna was beginning to suck up all the air in the room.) Lauper radiates irresistible warmth and vibrance in old interviews and performances, her body-thrashing on-stage showmanship as vital as her impressive vocal range.

Let the Canary Sing — named after a proclamation from the judge who ruled in Lauper’s favor during a record label lawsuit — struggles with pacing, spending a surprising portion of time on Lauper’s painful outer-boroughs childhood with a professionally unfulfilled mother and a perniciously abusive stepfather. Due to both the emotional rejection and lack of physical safety in her house, Lauper left home as a teenager and found refuge with her queer older sister and a chosen family of gay men who thereafter inspired her ally activism. (Decades before Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Lauper was singing “True Colors” to the people in her life she lost from AIDS.)

She spent her 20s fronting a blues rock band called Blue Angel, sometimes imitating Janis Joplin, but Lauper’s career didn’t catapult until she stopped mimicking others and fully embraced her own sui generis sensibilities. When she finally went solo, record execs wanted to use her powerful voice to morph her into the next Barbra Streisand. “I felt like I was always penalized because I had a bigger voice. Remember those days?” modern-day Lauper says to a musical partner. “‘People with big voices sing and people who don’t have big voices write.'” She wanted to be her own one-stop shop.

If you watch this film at all, watch it for the behind-the-scenes alchemy of how Lauper and her teams brewed her biggest hits. I never understood how musically complex “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is until I listened to Lauper describe the fascinatingly deliberate choices of her arrangement in detail, from the production sounds meant to summon amusement-park-ride memories to the ’60s girl group- like composition to the thrilled vocal “hiccups” she weaves throughout the song. These evocative and meticulous decisions, all aimed at creating an emotional context for the listener even if they can’t pinpoint the origins of the aural references, showcase the true engine behind Lauper’s triumphs that has nothing to do with her octave range. In other words, Lauper’s internal creativity.

The most successful music documentaries showcase a multifaceted cultural context that helps explain the lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon of an artist’s fame and glory. Let the Canary Sing doesn’t do this. It’s so laser-focused on Lauper herself, especially on how her trauma drove her ambition, that we don’t get a sense of why audiences were ready for her or her message in the early 1980s. She’s all colors and stripes and patterns and textures, but we don’t get a sense of how “drab” the pop music scene might have been when she arrived. This is not an outcome movie but a process movie. As her friend Boy George quips, “Fame is a figment of other people’s imaginations” — I still have only a small idea of ​​who Lauper is as a pop star, but I do now better understand her as a pop scientist.

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