‘Love to Love You, Donna Summer’ Review: HBO’s Queen of Disco Bio-Doc Goes Heavy on the Personal but Undersells the Music
The risk when an immediate family member is involved in a tribute to an important figure from the pop-culture firmament is that the story they choose to tell might not be the one fans want to hear. That’s an issue — at least for this erstwhile disco baby — with HBO’s Love to Love You, Donna Summer. Directed by Roger Ross Williams with Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, the doc is stuffed with great archive material. But it largely squanders an ideal platform through which to reaffirm the subject’s vital place in pop music history and reclaim disco as a genre whose influence has never waned.
Some of that is kinda, sorta here, but it’s so faint it’s almost apologetic. We’re constantly reminded that Summer was ambivalent about being crowned the Queen of Disco, because she felt it marginalized her vocal gifts for gospel, R&B and soul, not to mention being an uneasy fit with her later religious rebirth. In similar fashion, we’re told of her discomfort with the First Lady of Love title, which she earned primarily for two of the eternally fabulous hits that came out of her fruitful collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder, “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love.”
Love to Love You, Donna Summer
The Bottom Line
Lots for fans to pore over, but also a missed opportunity.
The film opens with those songs, the first performed live onstage by Summer, with sensual physical gyrations to match the orgasmic moans that punctuate its lyrics. The second blasts out over a throbbing crowd of mostly gay men, tearing up a dance floor to its hypnotic, trance-like beat.
But right away, the filmmakers feel the need to distance themselves from that essential part of Summer’s legacy by folding in her voiceover: “I have a secret life. You are looking at me, but what you see is not who I am. How many roles do I have to play in my lifetime?” Yawn. That early signal proves accurate in a doc that spends so much time on Summer’s spirituality, her Born Again Christian period and her late reconciliation with the traditional roles of wife and mother that the music often feels like an afterthought. Sorry, but some of us came to the party.
Seldom have I been so aware, in a documentary devoted to an artist I love, of all that’s missing. This is a film that sorely needed a musicologist or two to reflect on the cultural significance of disco and why Summer became such a momentous force in the genre. “I Feel Love” inarguably remains a foundational song for almost every wave of EDM that followed. But we get just one or two lines of audio interview with Moroder and co-writer/producer Pete Bellotte discussing how it changed the face of dance music. And that’s more individual attention than most of Summer’s canonical hits get.
Video of her singing “MacArthur Park,” another Moroder-Bellotte keeper, is dropped in with zero info on the genesis of that classic, which had previously been an unlikely hit for Richard Harris. That recording cemented the Summer trademark of the slow, ballady start that erupts into an ecstatic dance beat, a model she would return to on a number of Moroder-produced hits with similar transitions, including “Last Dance” and “On the Radio.”
Speaking of “Last Dance,” it seems odd to omit the delightful nugget that the song, written by Paul Jabara, has the rare distinction of being an Oscar winner from one of the worst-received movies of the year, 1978’s. Thank God It’s Fridaywhich pretty much marked the beginning and end of Summer’s screen acting career.
Summer’s elaborate concept albums, “I Remember Yesterday” and “Once Upon a Time,” which fed the theatricality of her concert performances, are given only cursory coverage.
How did her collaboration with Barbra Streisand on 1979’s “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” come about? The filmmakers apparently don’t believe that’s of interest. To be fair though, we do learn that Summer begged Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart to hold off on releasing the Streisand duet to give Summer’s own composition racing up the charts, “Dim All the Lights,” time to peak. Bogart ignored those wishes, halting the solo single’s path to No. 1 and souring Summer’s relationship with the label that had been her home since her career took off.
More time is spent on the early ’80s hit, “She Works Hard for the Money,” which came along at the right time to tap into female empowerment and was inspired by Summer seeing a restroom attendant dozing off during a 1983 Grammys after-party. at Chasen’s. (Amusingly, Summer reveals during an interview on The Arsenio Hall Show (that women identify her with that song while men identify her with “Love to Love You Baby.”) “She Works Hard for the Money” also spawned what is claimed to be the first music video by a Black female artist to be played on MTV. .
Later hits like “The Wanderer,” “State of Independence” and “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” don’t rate a mention, giving the impression that her charting days ended sooner than they did.
The doc is far more comprehensive about Summer’s personal life and the broad outlines of her career trajectory than the specifics, with considerable input from Brooklyn Sudano and her sister Mimi Dohler; their aunts, Mary Ellen and Dara Bernard, who sang backup for Summer; and Summer’s second husband, Bruce Sudano.
It traces her early reverence for the recordings of Mahalia Jackson; the attention she received as a 10-year-old choir soloist in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston where the family worshipped; her stint with an otherwise all-white band called The Crow, whose members hoped she’d be “the Black Janis Joplin;” and her move to New York City at 19, from where she landed a spot in a German production of Hairwhich took her to Munich and her formative encounter with Moroder, who became a musical mentor, before she had even cut a record.
The doc also gets into how the sexy, sultry persona projected in Summer’s breakout hits brought her massive fame — people allegedly were ripping off their clothes and tossing them on stage at early concerts — but took her in the complete opposite direction of her good- girl upbringing. The experience of being sexually abused in her teens by a pastor, which has saddening echoes much later with one of her daughters, contributed to a lifelong struggle to reconcile conflicts stirred up by God and sex and men, as did her short-lived but turbulent first marriage to Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer.
All this is quite absorbing, and no doubt important for the family to convey a picture of who Summer was, beyond the fame that she eagerly embraced only to find it constricting: “It was like being in an evening dress that’s too tight.”
The parts that become a bit of a drag pertain to the peace Summer found through happy-clappy Christian illumination, which then prompted a lot of religious rambling between songs in her concerts, disappointing longtime fans who came to dance in their seats. That core audience began to drift away once Summer renounced her early success as empty and meaningless, thus trashing music that had been the soundtrack to which an entire generation of gay men had come out.
That drift turned into full-scale animosity when Summer in the mid-’80s was quoted in a concert saying, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” The queer community already felt the church was against them and having one of their idols align herself with a hostile institution seemed like the ultimate betrayal, especially at a time when AIDS was killing gay men in escalating numbers.
Family members insist that comments calling AIDS a divine reckoning were falsely attributed to Summer, and Bruce Sudano admits they made a mistake in waiting too long to respond to the uproar. But the brief snippet of a press conference in which Summer clarified the misunderstanding and asked for forgiveness does not adequately support the claim by one of her daughters that she never got over the pain she caused.
It seems revealing that no evidence is presented to suggest Summer was comfortable being a gay icon, or that she acknowledged the huge part gay men had played in driving her album sales. Only Mary Ellen Bernard early on says it was pretty much the gay community that made “Love to Love You Baby” a hit. The music spoke freedom to people of color and LGBTQ clubgoers, in particular. And the loudest proponents of the Death to Disco campaign that started at the end of the 1970s were driven, at least in part, by racism and homophobia.
Williams (whose terrific narrative feature debut, Cassandro, was one of the standouts at Sundance last month), Brooklyn Sudano and their editing team have access not only to a wealth of media coverage and concert footage, but also to extensive home movies Summer shot, often showing her goofy side. Video of family encounters towards the end, when her lung cancer had progressed, are moving even if the bad taste of the homophobia controversy lingers, as it did in her lifetime.
The observation is made that many people dismissed “Love to Love You Baby” as a gimmicky song and thought Summer would be a flash in the pan. Instead, she carved out a decades-long career, generating music that still holds up today, not just for nostalgic reasons but because many of those songs remain legitimate bangers.
It would have been great if Love to Love You, Donna Summer had been more unequivocal in its celebration of that legacy, rather than short-changing the work for which she will always — deservingly — be best known. But even the choice to end the film with a sappy ballad from a VH1 special that nobody will be humming seems counterintuitive when one of the all-time great closing numbers, “Last Dance,” is right there. Given the excellent recent HBO docs on Tina Turner and The Bee Gees, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to have expected more.
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