New Donna Summer Documentary Doesn’t Gloss Over the Hard Parts
Love to Love You, Donna Summer (HBO) is an intimate look into the life of an artist who was much more than a "figurehead for a movement."EntertainmentMovies
Before we examine what the documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer is, it may be useful to look at what it isn’t. “We didn’t want to make Behind the Music,” Roger Ross Williams told Jezebel by Zoom regarding the doc he co-directed, which premieres Saturday on HBO. “We could have interviewed tons of musicologists and experts… You could read an article about Donna Summer in Billboard or whatever. But this is something that you can’t get. This is the family, the insiders. This is from Donna. This is truly who she was as an artist and her journey—and deeply personal.”
“I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of just being a Wikipedia page,” agreed Williams’ co-director Brooklyn Sudano. “But you’re seeing her in real time. You’re seeing her perform. You’re seeing her greatness in action. And then [we] let the audience make the decision for themselves where they think she stands in kind of the lexicon of music history.”
Sudano, an actor whose directorial debut is this project, has a highly personal stake in getting the portrait right—she’s Summer’s daughter. Williams, meanwhile, has been a longtime fan of Summer (he won a hustle competition in high school dancing to “I Feel Love”). He has a number of films under his belt, including God Loves Uganda, The Apollo, and Music by Prudence, whose Academy Award for Best Documentary Short made him the first Black person to win an Oscar for directing.
Sudano and Williams independently had envisioned a retrospective doc of Summer, who’s best known for her fantastically successful ‘70s disco output, much of which she wrote (alongside forward-thinking producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte). A chance meeting between Sudano and Julie Goldman, Williams’ longtime producer collaborator (including on Love to Love You), put the two in touch, and they soon realized they had a similar vision.
“I was really creating this collage, this very immersive experience that felt very grounded and very real and layered,” explained Sudano. “I don’t think you [usually] get that kind of approach, particularly for someone like my mom and that kind of music, and we really wanted to make it as personal and immersive as possible.” Indeed, Love to Love You is packed with archival footage of Summer onstage and, most preciously, behind the scenes, as she routinely filmed herself and her family living life and in skits. Much of what has been unearthed in the doc has never been seen before by the general public. It’s assembled not as a point-A-to-B litany of career milestones and chart positions, but in a more free-flowing manner that touches on Summer’s massive hits—like “Love to Love You Baby,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Bad Girls,” and “She Works Hard for the Money”—while also showing her creative process (many of her albums were based on long-form concepts she devised) and her relationship with fame (often wary and from a remove, as she created a character as her onstage avatar).
Sudano said she was so inspired to take on the project after Summer’s untimely death from lung cancer in 2012. “It was really coming to terms with not having my mom,” said Sudano. “I had just become a mother and I was really processing what that role was like.” She said that she’s been inundated with fan accounts of her mother’s impact on their lives.
“I just felt like there was a lot to be said that wasn’t said yet,” added Sudano.
Williams said they organized the movie into the three phases of Summer’s life, as he saw them: Her career beginnings in Germany, when she started in a stage version of Hair, modeled, and began recording; her late-‘70s imperial era; and finally, her settling into a domestic life in the ‘80s, as she raised Sudano and her sisters, Mimi and Amanda. Williams said the doc is “Donna’s journey—not so much about the musical journey, which you could do a multipart series [about], but it was really about where she was emotionally in her life.” Certain chapters, as a result, are left out due to time constraints, like her late ‘80s comeback alongside the British production team of Stock Aitken Waterman (Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley). And though there had been press reports of addiction issues, Sudano says that was a “common misconception.” She conceded that her mother dabbled and at one point did take the antidepressant Marplan, “but any other kind of heavy drug use or alcohol use was not part of her journey.”
Williams and Sudano have compressed a life into some 100 minutes, which means nothing in Love to Love You is belabored. But they strike an impressive balance by also refusing to gloss over certain difficult aspects of Summer’s life, like the sexual abuse from a minister she survived in her youth or the backlash she received for comments she made about gays, a huge segment of her audience (and, according to reports, coworkers at Casablanca Records, through which she released her ‘70s material). For many, this backlash defined Summer’s public profile in the ‘80s.
What actually happened is still somewhat vague—Summer spent a lot of time in the wake of the outrage talking about what she didn’t say. She denied calling gay people “sinners” or saying that AIDS was divine punishment. What is canon, according to the documentary, is that she, at some point after becoming more religious in the early ‘80s, made a comment in a concert along the lines of, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” This is stated in Love to Love You by none other than Summer’s widower, Bruce Sudano.
In the video below, around the 7:50 mark, Summer recounts a back-and-forth with gay fans after a concert, from which she says the “rumors” came.An account of someone who supposedly witnessed the same exchange had her agreeing to pray for a concertgoer with AIDS, but also attributing gays’ contraction of the disease to a “reckless lifestyle.” “She never condemned him, but did ask that he turn his life to Jesus,” said the anonymous source. “Being a gay Christian, I had no problem, however, there are some gays in our community who will not accept this. I do not think she realized the whole thing was going to blow up in her face. Nor do I think she meant any malice to the gays whatsoever… I do not think she thought anyone would leave the room. She can be really naive.” The source added that ultimately, Summer’s message was the opposite of what she was eventually accused of: “If the people who got mad had stayed, they would have heard her say, ‘The devil comes to steal and destroy, but God came to give life and life more abundantly,’ basically blaming AIDS on the devil.”
Nonetheless, the rumor stuck for years. Summer’s supposed condemnation elicited at least one protest from ACT UP. In a 1989 letter to the organization, she pleaded for understanding and forgiveness, writing, “I haven’t stopped talking to my friends who are gay, nor have I ever chosen my friends by their sexual preferences.” Despite her denying the words attributed to her for years and reaffirming again and again her allegiance with gays (watch the full video above to get a sense of how much she repeated herself on this matter), they were printed in a 1991 issue of New York magazine, which Summer then sued for libel. Reportedly, she and the magazine settled out of court, which is how Sudano said she understands it was resolved.
“Part of the reason why I wanted to make this film was because I wanted to explore that, being a gay man and being a big Donna Summer fan and being hurt and disappointed when that happened,” said Williams.
For Sudano’s part, she said she was unaware of the controversy as a child. “My truth and my sisters’ truth was that we experienced nothing but love from the gay and queer community and vice versa,” she said. “They were always an active part of our lives, you know, on a daily basis. But then also the fans and, you know, anytime anybody would come up to us.”
“If you understand who my mother was, you know that she was a person of love and generosity of spirit, of gifts. She loved people,” Sudano added. “We brought it up [in the doc] because we want there to be healing. We want there to be understanding.”
Ultimately, for Sudano, the experience of making a doc on her mother was, in fact, healing. “There were a lot of tears some days. There were certain revelations and conversations that really brought up a lot,” she said. “But I’m so happy that I was able to have them.” And she also relished setting the record straight on a real visionary artist who’s sometimes dismissed for rooting her work in the under-appreciated genre of disco. Sudano said the doc was about showing Donna Summer as “a complex, layered artist, not just this figurehead for a movement.”
“She kept moving forward and everybody tried to keep putting her in this spot,” said Sudano. “I think her legacy is much larger than she gets credit for.”