Donna Summer could hit notes more thrillingly beautiful than any other pop singer of her time, or since. I’m not sure even Whitney Houston, as great as she was, quite reached the glistening heights that culminate “Last Dance” (though she comes very close in “I Will Always Love You”). Mariah Carey (no relation to me) performs impressive vocal acrobatics, yet to my ear she can’t match the bell-like shimmer of Donna in the higher registers. And Donna in the lower registers – well, the voice thrums with visceral resonance.
In the documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer, making its world premiere today at the Berlin Film Festival, we get to revel in that voice. But directors Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano – Donna’s daughter – don’t aim for a jukebox music experience, content to press play on one hit after another. Rather, they create a portrait of a woman and artist far more complex – and talented – than has been appreciated. Summer possessed not only a stunning vocal gift, but she wrote or co-wrote some of her most famous songs, and impacted the course of pop music more profoundly than many realize. Yet, she struggled with the mantle of fame and felt deeply conflict between her artistic impulses and the strictures of a deeply religious upbringing. She never quite resolved the tension between the exuberance inherent in her performative abilities and the constricting and shaming imperative to serve the Lord according to what her faith, as she interpreted it, demanded.
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The documentary begins with the isolated vocals – or rather orgasmic moans – of Summer recording her first international hit, 1975’s “Love to Love You Baby” (written by Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte). It made her famous and kicked off the disco era, but the singer would always struggle with feeling defined by the song’s unprecedently frank expression of female sexual pleasure. In archive footage in the film, Summer’s grandmother comments after the song’s release, “I’m never gonna be able to go to church again.” Her mother says, “She knew that I was gonna be shocked. To say the least, I was shocked.”
The film makes the interesting observation that Summer “thought in theater” and recorded songs as though she were embodying a character. “I approach it as an actress,” she explains. “I’m not trying to be me.” In other words, just because Donna Summer recorded “Love to Love You Baby” didn’t mean she was a one-woman orgasmatron.
The music industry, however (as well as music journalists and perhaps the public too) preferred to conflate Donna the person with the song, tagging her as an icon of “sex rock” and “The First Lady of Love.” The film says, “She wasn’t having it.”
It took some years, but Summer eventually was able to display much more of her vocal range in songs like her cover of “MacArthur Park” (she makes you feel the exquisite agony of someone leaving “the cake out in the rain”). She co-wrote (with Moroder and Bellotte) the single “I Feel Love,” coming up with the rhythmic drum track that she described as creating a “floaty feeling.” The song inaugurated electronic dance music. As Elton John reflects in a new interview in the film, “I Feel Love” became a sensation at New York’s Studio 54. He says, “It changed the way people thought about music.”
Love to Love You, Donna Summer, is entirely covered by visuals of Summer and other vintage footage, with the exception of some vérité moments of Sudano going through her mother’s archive and enlisting her aunts, uncles and siblings in an effort to understand her mom. We learn of Donna growing up in racist Boston of the 1950s and ‘60s, and being chased as a kid by anti-Black white youths, an encounter that left her with a permanent scar on her face. At 19, she got a part in an international touring production of the musical Hair and settled in Germany, where she met her first husband, Helmuth Sommer (she would adopt his last name, altering the spelling slightly for her music career).
In Germany she felt free – released from family and their binding religious dictates, free from America’s intense racism, and free, to some extent, from the tortuous memory of sexual abuse she had been subjected to as a girl by a church pastor. She would have continued to live abroad in all likelihood had Casablanca Records, which helped turn “Love to Love You Baby” into a hit, not called her back across the Atlantic.
Like another pop icon who grew up in the church – Little Richard – she could never truly escape feelings of guilt around her musical calling. She says in the film, “I felt God could never forgive me because I had failed Him. I was decadent, I was stupid, I was a fool. I just decided that my life had no meaning.”
The documentary reveals she almost committed suicide by leaping from a hotel window, but a housekeeper’s unexpected entrance interrupted her plan. Much later in her life, after recording many hits, she married the songwriter Bruce Sudano and settled into a more tranquil life in Thousand Oaks, California, raising daughters Brooklyn, Amanda – her kids with Sudano – and her youngest daughter Mimi, fathered by Helmuth. She became a born-again Christian, and shared her newfound faith with concert audiences. That went over like a lead balloon.
One of her musicians says of the audience response, “People wanted to dance and party” rather than hear about Summer’s religious reawakening.
That fraught dance with faith led to the biggest controversy of Summer’s career, which in many respects still colors perceptions of the singer to this day. At one concert gig, she made a stray comment to the effect that “God didn’t make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve,” possibly in an ill-conceived attempt at humor. The remark offended Donna’s legion of LGBT fans, who naturally perceived it as anti-gay. She was also quoted – or rather wrongly quoted, the filmmakers insist – as having said AIDS was God’s judgment on gays.
The AIDS activist group ACT UP picketed an exhibition of Summer’s artwork – just one example of the backlash over the alleged hurtful comments. Summer and her husband Bruce initially decided the best course of action was not to respond. Big mistake. Eventually, Summer held a press conference to deny having made the “God’s judgment” remark and to express her love for people of every background. But the controversy never quite went away, shadowing Summer until her death in 2012, at the age of 63, from lung cancer.
“It’s something I don’t think she ever got over,” her widower, Bruce Sudano, observes.
It’s significant that Love to Love You, Donna Summer is co-directed by Williams, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who is an openly gay African American man. He and Brooklyn Sudano by no means paper over the furor that erupted after Summer’s remarks. They don’t try to “resolve” the issue, but the film leaves one with the feeling that Summer truly was a loving and giving person who didn’t harbor animus toward people, even if – again – the dubious influence of conservative Christianity may have led her to wound her fans.
After Berlin, the documentary will premiere on HBO sometime in the spring. It’s a nuanced exploration of an artist of enormous talent and lasting influence, plagued by inner conflict.
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