If history holds that the voice of Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, launched a thousand acid trips, let the record chronicle that the voice of Donna Summer launched a thousand orgasms. Probably more.
Summer, sex goddess of the 1970s, seemed to practically have a few orgasms of her own while crooning through seminal disco tracks such as “Bad Girl,” “I Feel Love,” “On the Radio,” and many more. HBO’s new documentary biopic Love to Love You, Donna Summer borrows its title from one of Summer’s biggest hits, and aims to lift the glare of colored gels and disco balls to spotlight the complicated woman beyond the persona.
“I’m trying to figure out the many pieces of who mom was,” Summer’s daughter, co-director Brooklyn Sudano, says early in the film. “She was complicated.” The statement echoes one oft made by Summer herself: “What you see is not who I am.” Love to Love You tries its best to unravel the contradictions of one of pop music’s most important — and most underrated — female vocalists. The movie does a great job conjuring Summer’s mystique and manages to expose some tragic episodes from her personal life, even if it never quite goes as deep as it would like.
Born in working-class Massachusetts, Summer showed early musical promise as a church vocalist. Her drive for stardom led her to Europe, where she found success as a model and actress in musicals such as Hair. Her powerful vocals attracted the attention of composer Giorgio Moroder, who invited her to collaborate on some experimental dance tracks.
Their creative partnership resulted in “Love to Love You,” a song that was groundbreaking both for its casting of the disco sound, and for Summer’s ultra-sexual vocals, which included the aforementioned orgasms. Hit after hit followed, with the singer transitioning from one of disco’s defining voices to a feminist pop-rocker in the 1980s with her track “She Works Hard for the Money.”
As co-directed by Roger Ross Williams and Sudano, Love to Love You uses an aesthetic similar to another rock-doc-biopic, Amy. The directors opt to tell their story through as much archival footage as possible, with the usual talking heads narrating Summer’s story off-screen. Apart from a few interstitials of Brooklyn, her sisters Mimi and Amanda, and Summer’s widower Bruce Sudano, Summer alone commands the screen.
And command she does. Summer projected pure eroticism through her music — a trait that she resented from the start. As much as she yearned for mega-stardom, the singer always believed that her disco queen status overshadowed her gifts as a vocalist and songwriter. That uneasy pairing of performer and persona led to chronic melancholy, which plagued Summer for life. At one point in the film, Mimi, her oldest daughter, remembers how touring kept her mother absent through most of her childhood. On the few occasions when Summer did make it home, she spent most of her time exhausted in bed.
Audio diaries by the singer retell an episode when, at the height of her fame, she tried to throw herself out the window of a New York hotel. Only the chance arrival of a housekeeper saved her life. Summer also carried shame from sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a childhood minister. Her family hypothesizes that the abuse not only added to her struggles with depression but also led to volatile relationships with men.
Some of Love to Love You’s most telling moments come in the form of outtakes from Summer’s video shoots. Williams and Sudano include extreme close-ups of her eyes between takes, darting about like those of an insecure child. The directors let the shot continue to play as Summer begins to perform a song, and the transformation from demure to radiant is shocking. As much as anything in the film, these scenes underline her remarkable power as a performer.
But if Love to Love You succeeds in paying homage to Donna Summer’s influence and showbiz legacy, it falters a bit in unraveling her personal confabulations. Bruce Sudano recalls the extremes of their marriage, which included hurled pots and pans, as well as visits from police. The couple managed to stay together for more than 30 years, though the movie never explains how or if the pair ever stabilized their relationship.
Mimi recalls that when she confessed that she’d also endured sexual abuse at the hands of one of Summer’s employees, her mother hyperventilated and left the room. The movie never really explains how or if Summer ever offered her daughter support, or if the two ever even discussed the abuse at length. All her children describe Summer as somewhat aloof; nowhere in the movie do they say if they ever confronted their mother about emotional distance.
Williams and Sudano also save Summer’s most controversial moment for late in the film. In the mid-1980s, Summer became a born-again Christian and began to tout her faith in concerts. That led to an incident during a show when Summer remarked that “God didn’t make Adam and Steve. He made Adam & Eve.” Needless to say, her words did not sit well with Summer’s many queer fans, who were already struggling against the devastation of AIDS. Worse, the singer opted to ignore the immediate blowback from the comment, which led to reports stating that Summer also believed AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality — a popular sentiment among Christian leaders of the day.
After protests by AIDS activists and a string of canceled shows, Summer disavowed the rumors about AIDS-as-punishment. Still, her milquetoast rebuttal that “A couple of the people I write with are gay” came as too little, too late. The controversy tarnished her image and remains a topic of debate long past her death in 2012. Make no mistake: this one gaffe, more than anything, is the reason Summer’s influence and talent often go overlooked.
Donna Summer’s Flawed Legacy
In a sense, the way Sudano and Williams (who, it bears mentioning, is gay) handle the “Adam and Steve” episode illustrates the biggest shortcoming of Love to Love You. The movie drives home the point that Summer realized she’d made a terrible mistake in making her remark, her handling of the controversy, and that it haunted her for the rest of her life. But the film never reveals how Summer actually felt about queer people, their rights, her comfort with same-sex relationships, or her status as a gay icon. The film highlights the contradiction but doesn’t manage to dissect it.
Then again, perhaps nobody — Summer included — ever could reconcile such complications. Great artists, their lives, and their work often teem with contradictions. Maybe that’s what gives their art such power. In the case of Love to Love You, Donna Summer, the film affirms its subject’s importance and influence in pop music, how she embodied sexual liberation, her personal difficulties, and how she struggled to carry those burdens. Yet for all the love and memories offered by friends and family here, Donna Summer, at her absolute, still feels as hidden as a singer on the radio. One, no doubt, that will continue to inspire orgasms for years to come.