Early in the new documentary about her life, Donna Summer says, “You’re looking at me, but what you see is not what I am. How many roles do I play in my own life?”
It’s a profound thesis statement backed up by a career that saw her go from musical theater upstart to sensual disco pioneer to born-again Christian. Summer was the first Black woman with a video in regular rotation on MTV, a statistic that stresses the progress she represented and the burden she carried. By the time she danced her last dance in 2012, she was living on a sprawling California ranch removed from showbiz’s commercial trappings.
Love to Love You, Donna Summer, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and airs on HBO in May, paints a complicated portrait of a performer whose concept albums and theatrical stage shows made her more of a multihyphenate than she gets credit for. Like all celebrities, however, Summer could only control her image so much. She felt boxed in by the queen-of-disco branding that made “I Feel Love” one of the most influential dance songs ever recorded, and not even a hit collaboration with Barbra Streisand could diversify the way she’d be remembered.
Then again, it’s hard to say how Summer should be memorialized based on the evidence presented in the movie. After her Studio 54-friendly anthems secured a zealous gay following, she allegedly said at a 1983 concert in Atlantic City that “it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and “AIDS is the result of your sins.” Summer denied saying such things during a 1989 interview with The Advocate, and Love to Love You features footage of a tearful press conference where she repudiated the AIDS quote. But the movie offers little insight into why public homophobia would have been falsely attributed to Summer, other than to remind us that she remains misunderstood.
No matter how much we project onto them, all stars are unknowable. The pop-doc industrial complex of the last several years wants to convince us we’re getting a credible peak into the lives of Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, Lizzo, and other A-listers, but too often these films are produced by their subject’s record label or management team, resulting in a glorified press release or a paint-by-numbers overview. It’s both fascinating and exhausting to see the same refrain sung over and over: Life as a celebrity kind of blows. Apparently riches don’t distract from the fraught, lonely, unpredictable experience that is fame.
Once you’ve seen a bunch of these movies, the “we all wear masks” thesis starts to feel like compensation. It sounds penetrating, but is it? Summer isn’t alive to mythologize her own history, so Love to Love You does it using archival footage. Co-directed by Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) and Summer’s daughter, My Wife and Kids actress Brooklyn Sudano, the film stitches together a glaringly incomplete portrait. And yet something compelling does emerge: the story of a woman still getting to know the woman who birthed her.
Summer never considered herself a natural pop star, nor a natural mother. By her own assessment, she was a comedian, a thespian, and, as she once told Johnny Carson, an aspiring movie director. Summer sees the seductress who cooed her way through her first big single, “Love to Love You Baby,” as a role she played. Even her voice was a put-on. The same can be said of parenthood. When her first daughter, Mimi, was born in 1973, Summer knew right away that she was not instinctively maternal. She later had two more daughters with her second husband, songwriter Bruce Sudano. Home movies show an engaged, loving mother, but Brooklyn still feels she is unpeeling the many layers of the woman who birthed her. Summer seems to have grown more comfortable with that part of her identity once she reclaimed Christianity in the ’80s.
The film lays out a clear case for Summer’s complexities. A minister molested her when she was a teenager, men hit her when she was an adult, and her label stiffed her when she was a superstar. “The record business is really like being raped and abused time and time again,” she is heard saying. She started her career in German productions of Hair and Godspell, yet no one back home saw her as anything but a nightclub siren. “She Works Hard for the Money” was inspired by an exhausted bathroom attendant Summer encountered at a restaurant, but it had to be about herself, too. How she maintained such a spunky front while facing such hardship deserves more attention.
A lot of Summer’s music gets only a cursory mention, if that. The documentary leans into her discomfort with the “first lady of love” moniker, snubbing the value her songs added to the world. Georgio Moroder, the trailblazing disco producer behind many of her signatures, including “I Feel Love” and “Hot Stuff,” is only briefly featured, whereas their partnership probably could have filled an entire film of its own.
Love to Love You winds up emphasizing the limitations of the pop doc, in part because it assigns so much depth to the mere idea that Summer was impenetrable. No matter how much the SXSW crowd cheered when “Last Dance” played, the film seems uncertain whether to celebrate her legacy or turn a skeptical eye toward its contradictions. Maybe that’s fair. No one is just one thing. But this scattered attempt to square the Summer we knew with the Summer we didn’t feels out of focus.
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The post The Darkness Behind Donna Summer’s Disco Facade appeared first on The Daily Beast.