If history holds that Jefferson Airplane frontman Grace Slick’s voice initiated a thousand sour trips, let the records record that Donna Summer’s voice initiated a thousand orgasms. Probably more.
Summer, the sex goddess of the ’70s, seemed to almost have an orgasm of her own a few times while crooning to groundbreaking disco tracks like “Bad Girl,” “I Feel Love,” and “On the Radio.” HBO’s New Documentary Biopic love you donna summer Borrowing the title from one of the summer’s biggest hits, it was designed to elevate the glare of colored gels and disco balls to highlight complex female characters.
“There are so many parts of me trying to figure out who Mom is,” Summer’s daughter, co-director Brooklyn Sudarno, says at the film’s opening. “She’s complicated.” The line echoes something Summer herself often says: “What you see isn’t me.” love love you Do your best to unravel the contradictions of one of pop music’s most important — and most underrated — female singers. The film does a good job of evoking Summer’s mystique and manages to uncover some harrowing episodes in her personal life, even if it never goes as far as one would hope.
Born into working class Massachusetts, Summer showed musical potential early on as a church singer.Her desire for stardom took her to Europe, where she found success as a model and actress in musicals such as hair. Her powerful voice caught the attention of composer George Morold, who invited her to collaborate on some experimental dance music.
Their creative collaboration resulted in “Love to Love You,” a song that was groundbreaking in both its take on disco sounds and Summer’s ultra-sexy vocals (including the aforementioned orgasm). Song after song followed, the singer transformed from one of disco’s signature sounds to feminist pop-rock star of the 1980s with her single “She Works Hard for the Money.”
Co-directed by Roger Ross Williams and Sudano, love love you Using an aesthetic similar to another Doctor Rock biopic, amyThe directors chose to tell their stories through as much archival footage as possible, often with speakers telling Summer’s story off-screen. Apart from a few interstitials for Brooklyn, her sisters Mimi and Amanda, and Summer’s widower, Bruce Sudarno, Summer alone occupies the screen.
and ordered her to do so. Summer projects pure eroticism through her music—a quality she hated from the start. Despite her aspirations for superstardom, the singer has always felt that her disco diva status overshadowed her talents as a singer and songwriter. This uneasy combination of performer and character led to the chronic depression that plagued Summer throughout his life. At one point in the film, her older daughter, Mimi, remembers how touring kept her mother absent for most of her childhood. The few times Summer came home, she spent most of her time lying in bed exhausted.
The singer’s audio diary recounts an episode in which she attempted to jump from a New York hotel window at the height of her fame. Only the accidental arrival of the housekeeper saved her life. Summer was also shamed for being sexually abused by a childhood priest. Her family speculates that the abuse not only exacerbated her struggles with depression, but also contributed to her unstable relationships with men.
Some love love youThe most compelling moments come from footage shot in Summer’s video. Williams and Sudano did extreme close-ups of her eyes between takes, scurrying around like an insecure child. The director keeps the camera running, and Summer starts singing the song, and the transition from demure to radiant is stunning. Like anything in the film, these scenes underscore her extraordinary strength as a performer.
but if love love you successfully pays homage to Donna Summer’s influence and show business legacy, but hesitates to expose her personal fiction. Bruce Sudano recalls extreme circumstances in their marriage, including throwing pots and pans and police visits. The couple managed to stay together for over 30 years, though the film never explains how or if the couple stabilized their relationship.
Mimi recalls her mother leaving the room, breathless, when she admitted that she, too, had been sexually abused by a Summer employee. The movie never really explains how or if Summer offered support to her daughter, or if the two ever discussed the abuse at length. All her children described Xia Tian as a bit cold. They don’t say anywhere in the movie if they ever had a confrontation with their mother about emotional distance.
Williams and Sudarno also save Summer’s most controversial moments for later in the film. In the mid-1980s, Summer became a born-again Christian and began preaching her faith in concert.This led to an incident on the show when Summer said “God didn’t create Adam and Steve. He made Adam and Eve.” Needless to say, her words did no Sit with Summer’s many queer fans who are already battling the devastation of AIDS. To make matters worse, the singer chose to ignore the immediate repercussions of the comments, which led to reports that Summer also believed that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality—a view popular among Christian leaders at the time.
Following protests from AIDS activists and a string of canceled shows, Summer dismissed rumors of AIDS as punishment. Still, her mild rebuttal of “several of the people I wrote with was gay” came too little, too late. The controversy tarnished her image and was the subject of debate long after her death in 2012. Make no mistake: This gaffe, more than anything else, is why Sommer’s influence and brilliance are so often overlooked.
Donna Summer’s Flawed Legacy
In a way, the way Sudarno and Williams (gay, it’s worth noting) handled the “Adam and Steve” episode illustrates the biggest flaw love love youThe movie makes it clear that Summer realized she had made a terrible mistake in speaking out, dealing with controversy, and it haunted her for the rest of her life.But the movie never reveals how summer is actually felt about queer people, their rights, her comfort level with same-sex relationships, or her status as a gay icon. The movie highlights the contradiction but doesn’t manage to dissect it.
Then again, perhaps no one — including Summer — can reconcile such complications. Great artists, their lives and their works are often full of contradictions. Perhaps this is what gives their art such power.in the case of love you donna summer, the film affirms the importance and influence of its subject matter in popular music, how she embodies sexual liberation, her personal difficulties and how she struggles to carry those burdens. And yet, for all the love and memories from friends and family here, Donna Summer’s absolute presence remains as stealthy as a singer on the radio. No doubt this will continue to inspire orgasms for years to come.
love love you donna summer premieres May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO and is available on HBO Max.