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New Cyndi Lauper Doc Highlights How Wonderfully Unusual She Really Is

We sat down with director Allison Ellwood on approaching Lauper’s vast and colorful career
Cyndi Lauper performs after the 'Let the Canary Sing' premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival at Beacon Theatre on June 14, 2023 in New York City. (Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival)
Cyndi Lauper performs after the 'Let the Canary Sing' premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival at Beacon Theatre on June 14, 2023 in New York City. (Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival)

The Cyndi Lauper documentary feature Let the Canary Sing, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2023 and has its wide premiere on Paramount+ on June 4, might just be the final piece of the iconic artist’s EGOT puzzle. Lauper collected her first award, the Grammy for best new artist in 1985. Her Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series came in 1995 for her unforgettable appearance on the smash NBC sitcom, Mad About You. Kinky Boots garnered Lauper a Tony Award for best original music score in 2013. Also that year, she snagged her second Grammy, for Kinky Boots, which won best musical theater album.

Lauper’s many achievements are covered in Let the Canary Sing. But the film, which clocks in at 100 minutes, pulls back the Lauper curtain, allowing fans to get a glimpse beyond her colorful public persona. The opening shots are of Lauper in the back of a car in New York City, running late, trying to get the driver to cut down on the travel time, her distinct Queens accent is instantly familiar, like hearing an old friend. She digs around in her oversized purse, from which hang full-sized tools: a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, and a small saw. This accessory is Lauper to a T: unique and goofy.

As fun as it is following Lauper around her daily life, the present-day footage of her in Let the Canary Sing is primarily on a scarlet couch. Dressed in a black-and-white with her short hair hued in lavender, pink, and blue, Lauper is the main narrator of Let the Canary Sing. She tells stories about her young years into her teenagehood and new adult era, ping ponging with her sister Elen and, to a lesser degree, with her brother Fred. They go into exhaustive detail about their upbringing and exposure to pop culture. Their tales are enhanced by family photos and video, as well as footage of the time. As personal as their accounts are, they are also contextually rooted in mid-century social norms.

A natural comedian with impeccable timing, Lauper comes across deadly serious in her talking heads portions. This is a sharp contrast to the archival footage of Lauper in her ‘80s heyday, where she disarms Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and everyone else with whom she comes in contact, with seemingly tossed off responses. Her appearance, of course, was outrageous, which made her sharp wit and clever returns unexpected and even more impactful.

The bulk of the content in Let the Canary Sing is not new information, particularly not for Lauper’s fans whose dedication and loyalty is unwavering and ferocious. But that might be why Lauper was reluctant to agree to a documentary. According to the film’s director and co-producer Alison Ellwood (The Go-Go’s, Laurel Canyon) Lauper’s initial response to a documentary was, “I’m not dead yet. Why do you want to make a documentary about me?”

1984. (Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Says Ellwood, “Cyndi and I had several conversations. There was something quite magical about her, her story, the way she tells her story and the way she thinks. She’s incredibly thoughtful. She may seem chaotic and things just come out randomly, but nothing is not considered and everything thought about. She’s super smart. When you go into these to tell your story honestly, I’ll portray your story honestly. We just wanted to tell the stories in a straightforward way.”

Let the Canary Sing follows Lauper’s various musical guises. Her musical trajectory is followed  from the priceless video of her time in her woefully underappreciated band Blue Angel to her popularity peak through to her turns as an electronic artist and eventually her work on Kinky Boots. It’s her ‘80s era that is the most awe-inspiring. Even if her television moments were viewed when they aired and perhaps later on YouTube, seeing Lauper’s pinnacle career moments compressed into a sizzle reel partway through the film is genuinely impressive. Forty years in the rearview, Lauper’s perennial songs, her tremendous voice, her one-of-a-kind image and her outsized personality come across even larger than they did out of the gate.

“How deeply she reaches people is profound,” observes Ellwood. “Her songs speak so directly to people on a very personal level. She’s as loyal to [her fans] as they are to her.”

The true behind-the-scenes moments are when Lauper and her colleagues unpack her songwriting process. Hearing and sometimes watching the formation of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “True Colors” is astounding, as is her current work-in-progress project, the musical version of Working Girl.

The major conflict of Let the Canary Sing is Lauper’s post ‘80s fame years where she didn’t have the same degree of commercial success. She tried different musical and artistic avenues, held back, in part, by her waning fame. But as Boy George says in the film, “Fame is a figment of other people’s imagination.” He continues, “If you don’t have a sense of who you are and what you want, it can make you quite unhappy.”

There aren’t as many recognizable faces among the talking heads as the majority of those chiming in are Lauper’s close circle. Some contemporaries of Lauper’s are Patti LaBelle whose duet with Lauper is a highlight of the film, Billy Porter, star of Kinky Boots on Broadway and the aforementioned Boy George, a friend of Lauper’s for the last four decades. The latter two speak about Lauper, not just as people who know her well, but major icons in the queer community, for which she is such a visible ally.

Lauper was, and is, a forerunner for not just gay rights, but women’s rights, racism, diversity, inclusion and equity long before it became a trendy quality for artists. Let the Canary Sing details her efforts in these areas, up to the present time where she has been instrumental in making government funded services available for unhoused LGBTQ+ youth.

After Ellwood’s The Go-Go’s film is when the trailblazing group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ellwood has the same intention for Lauper. She states with finality, “[Lauper] should be in there.”