Cyndi Lauper: The life and career of legendary pop singer comes in a new documentary

Cyndi Lauper performing live at the Amway Center of Orlando, Florida.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

It has been almost four decades since Cyndi Lauper recorded her signature songs, Time after Time, True Colors, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Today, these songs are still a staple on radio stations and streaming playlists.

Back in the 1980s, Lauper was rated among the most successful female pop stars in the world. It was not just her distinctive high voice, brightly coloured hair and outrageous fashion sense that earned her fame; Lauper has been a fierce advocate for social change, especially women’s rights.

The story of the life and career of the legendary singer, songwriter is told in a new documentary Let the Canary Sing that premiered on Paramount Plus streaming platform this week. The film is accompanied by an album of the same time which contains a career retrospective with Lauper’s greatest hits.

“Over the years, I have been asked to do a documentary about my life and work, but it never felt the right time,” she said in a statement about the film. But that changed when she met award-winning director Alison Ellwood, in whom she has placed the trust to tell her story honestly,

The title of the film is taken from a ruling in a lawsuit that an ex-manager filed to retain control of Lauper’s music after she left the band Blue Angel for her solo career. The judge dismissed the case with the pronouncement: “Let the canary sing”.

The story traces Lauper’s childhood growing up in the Queens borough of New York to becoming an international superstar with a career spanning more than 40 years in music, film and theatre.

Her elder sister Elen Lauper recalls how they danced around the house swinging brooms and mops, to songs by the Beatles, Cyndi singing John Lennon’s parts while she did Paul McCartney voice.

She left her childhood home at age 17 to escape an abusive stepfather, and tried a series of jobs including shoe saleswoman, waitress and an office assistant “typing 19 words and a minute”.

When none of those satisfied her restless soul, she turned up for music auditions singing some of her favourite songs like I Really Got to Use my Imagination by Motown legend Gladys Knight.

“I was really surprised at what was coming out of my mouth,” she says, in reference to her ability to hold high notes. She began writing her own material with keyboardist John Turi and the duo formed the group Blue Angel, recording just one album in 1980. Lauper’s big break came in 1983 when she released her debut solo album, She’s So Unusual.

The first single from the album, Girls Just Want to Have Fun was written by Robert Hazard as a rock song from a man’s perspective but Lauper flipped it to become an anthem for feminism. As the documentary reveals, her record company had given up any hope of success for the single after radio stations initially failed to embrace it.

All that changed after the music video for Girls Just Want to Have Fun, a novelty for that era, hit the airwaves with a cast that included the singer’s mother and wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano playing the role of Lauper’s father.

“I wore red because red is the power colour,” says Lauper about her choice of costume for the video which has to date been watched more than 1 billion times on YouTube. Thanks to the success of that album, Lauper won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1985 picking up her trophy accompanied by another wrestling star, Hulk Hogan, as her bodyguard.

One of the highlights from the documentary is the video of Lauper going toe-to-toe on stage with one of her idols Patti Labelle during a performance of her ballad Time After Time in 1985. The following year, True Colors was written as a tribute to a friend who was dying from AIDS at a time when people who had contracted the disease were shunned.

“I wanted to speak to a human being in the most tender spot,” she says in the film. “I had to learn the power of the whisper.” She founded the True Colors Fund to address youth homelessness in the US and in 2015 appeared before a US Senate subcommittee to testify on addressing the problem.

As the commercial impact of her albums waned, Lauper appeared in film roles and found success in theatre, writing the music for the Tony Award-winning Broadway production Kinky Boots in 2013. Her music has also impacted a new generation when rapper Nicki Minaj sampled Girls Just Want to Have Fun on her 2023 single Pink Friday Girls.

This week 70-year-old Lauper announced her Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Farewell Tour across 23 cities in North America beginning October this year. It certainly will not be the last time that the world hears from this icon who has created a phenomenal legacy out of being unusual.

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