Let the Canary Sing

A doc to remember

Let the Canary Sing
Not pictured: Captain Lou, Captain Lou Albano

Some artists appear destined for longevity from the start; others work their way into the pantheon over time. When Cyndi Lauper skyrocketed to fame following the release of her 1983 solo debut She's So Unusual, it was difficult to know exactly what to make of her, but she didn't necessarily not give off flash-in-the-pan vibes — although her vocal gifts were immediately and absolutely undeniable, it was also hard to imagine how she could possibly maintain the madcap, Day-Glo energy that surrounded every aspect of her public persona.

Of course, as we know now, she had no intention of staying on the path she'd forged with the massive success of She's So Unusual. She had greater ambitions and plenty of them — and the way those ambitions have both hampered and helped her recording career is unpacked with mostly admirable clarity in the new documentary Let the Canary Sing.

I say "mostly" because after watching it, I feel like this movie will leave casual fans and the Lauper-ignorant with a deeper appreciation for her music and a greater admiration for her as a human being — but I also think it's bound to be at least slightly frustrating for longtime or hardcore fans due to the way it falls prey to the most common of rock doc sins, which is an abrupt lack of interest in huge chunks of its subject's story once it gets past the multi-platinum years. If you didn't know any better, you could come away from this movie thinking Cyndi Lauper hasn't recorded any new music for close to 30 years.

This is doubly frustrating because for its first hour or so, Let the Canary Sing offers a patient overview of Lauper's early years, from her turbulent and often painful childhood to the years she spent working odd jobs and gigging with various bands. The most successful of those acts, Blue Angel, landed a deal with Polydor and released a self-titled album in 1980, but disappointing sales led to the group's eventual demise. Although she resisted striking out as a solo artist, preferring to stick it out with Blue Angel, that was ultimately the only way forward — and watching her perform with the band in the archival clips collected for Canary, you can see the writing on the wall long before it revealed itself. Blue Angel was a fine band, but Lauper was a positively volcanic talent, even at that early stage; at no point while watching that footage are you able to take your eyes off her. Rock 'n' roll history is littered with the corpses of potentially great bands that were destroyed because some jackass record executive thought the lead singer was more marketable on their own, but this is one case where going solo well and truly feels like it had to have been inevitable.

The movie doesn't rush through that part of the story, and it also spends a lot of time recounting the development of She's So Unusual, including the many attempts it took to come up with a version of the Robert Hazard-penned title track that Lauper could be happy with. Already, you can see the emerging picture of an artist who was regularly underestimated even by the people who were solidly in her professional corner; she had to fight for the opportunity to co-write anything on Unusual, and when "She's So Unusual" failed to light up the charts after two weeks as the leadoff single, the label panicked and tried to jump straight to "Time After Time," a potentially catastrophic mistake that was only averted when Lauper's then-manager/boyfriend David Wolff convinced them to wait two more weeks, and dreamed up the pro wrestling crossover that started kicking doors in for her.

But once you get past Unusual, the movie starts to get antsy. Although it spends a bunch of time on the title track to her sophomore outing True Colors, it doesn't really get into the rest of the record (or the conflicts that led to her separation from producer Rick Chertoff and the members of the Hooters, who had a lot to do with Unusual's sound and songs), and it really glosses over everything that came after. You get a few seconds about the failure of her 1988 movie Vibes, which also basically serves as what passes for a mention of 1989's A Night to Remember LP. You get a few minutes about 1993's Hat Full of Stars, which is really unfortunate because it contains some of her best work; meanwhile, almost everything around these bits comes across like a half-hour montage of highlights (along with a couple of lowlights) culled from several decades of professional and personal experience.

The tacit message is that She's So Unusual and "True Colors" matter more than anything else in Cyndi Lauper's career, which is a position that's easy to understand from the studio's perspective; your subject's most well-known work is always the biggest hook on which to hang a production like this one. But from a narrative standpoint, it stands frustratingly at odds with the film's perpetual message that Lauper never stopped growing creatively or fighting ferociously for the right to do so, and you're given enough glimpses of the fruits of that labor — she won a freaking Tony! — to make Canary's blinders that much harder to accept.

Still, as much as I've bitched about all that, I enjoyed Let the Canary Sing quite a bit, perhaps primarily because I think it's really meant to offer a sweet and powerful reminder of the beauty that's possible when people who've experienced deep trauma find a way to refuse to allow it to define them. Cyndi Lauper experienced a lifetime's worth of heartache even before she started brawling with the entertainment industry, and what you learn as this movie goes on is that those experiences have given her an essential empathy that defines her work in and out of the recording studio. As Canary closes out, it narrows its focus on Lauper's years of advocacy work for the vulnerable and the dispossessed, and you really get the sense that she's gotten down in those trenches not just because she's a good citizen who wants to use her public platform responsibly, but because coping with her own pain has helped her feel the pain of others on a fundamental level.

I don't really have anywhere else to go with this, other than to admit that I've never been a huge Cyndi Lauper fan and I watched Let the Canary Sing mainly out of curiosity. I know just enough about her discography to be annoyed by the incomplete view that's presented here, but I also love a good story about stubborn resilience in the face of heartbreak and insurmountable odds. As a career overview, Canary is streaky and off-balance, but as a case study in what can happen when you refuse to shut yourself off from the world even when it'd be so much easier — at least in the short term — to do so, it's a really gratifying and deeply emotional piece of work.