Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams and Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano team up to create an intimate portrait of a conflicted and complicated artist.
There are two documentaries about iconic female musicians playing at this year’s Berlinale. First up, Joan Baez I Am A Noise, and then Love to Love You, Donna Summer, co-directed by Roger Ross Williams and Summer’s own daughter, Brooklyn Sudano. Both films are interested in exploring the multiple personas that exist simultaneously within artists of the size and influence of Joan Baez and Donna Summer.
“How many roles do I play in my own life?”Summer ponders in an interview. Love to Love You, Donna Summer is an intimate portrait of an artist and the multiple roles she played for different people in her life, including raw conversations with her daughters and their experience of a loving, but largely absent, mother. Through archive interviews and audio interviews with Summer’s family and closest collaborators, as well as new footage of Sudano balancing making a film with getting to know her mother’s life more intimately than ever.
Love to Love You, Donna Summer starts, conveniently, with the 1975 track that gives the documentary its name, opening with Summer’s breathy, orgasmic intonation of the song. When “Love to Love You Baby” was released, Summer was settled in Germany with her first husband, Helmuth Sommer (whose name she adapted into her stage name) and a steady career singing bubblegum pop. Summer relished the freedom that Europe offered her, a respite from her conservative upbringing, Boston’s racism and the painful memory of abuse suffered at the hands of a church pastor.
After the single hit it off, she returned to the US a star, positioned by her label as “the first lady of love”, keen on maximising a sultry image that went well with the track. Summer’s internal conflict with the disco sex queen persona that had garnered her success and her own beliefs make the compelling core of the documentary (“I’m never gonna be able to go to church again,” her mother said after the success of “Love to Love You Baby”).
The filmmakers shine a light on the artistry that went into every element of her music and just how much of that came from Summer herself. Her approach to performance is revealed to be closer to that of an actress. “I’m not trying to be me,” she says. Every song is akin to embodying a character and her live performances had an almost theatre-like structure, with a character, a conflict and a resolution.
The film reveals the often under-appreciated musicianship of Summer. She not only wrote or co-wrote most of her songs, but often came up with the inventive touches that elevated a decent track into a runaway hit, like the “toot toot, beep beep” that kicks off “Bad Girls”. She is shown as obsessed with directing and, having bought a camera, makes short films with her family and friends.
Her difficult relationship with fame and the demands of pop superstardom comes to a head multiple times. A fraught relationship with her daughter, who she cannot take on the road with her. An abusive relationship with a man threatened by her success. A label who she had to sue for mismanaging the profits from her work. Love to Love You, Donna Summer doesn’t shy away from the controversy that would plague the latter part of Summer’s life, after she had become a born-again Christian and used her live shows to talk about faith more than disco.
At one such gig, she made the throwaway comment that “God didn’t make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve,” which understandably devastated her LGBT fans, creating waves of protests and a stain on Summer’s reputation right until her death in 2012 from lung cancer.
In lieu of trodding the familiar “behind the music” beats of pop documentaries, Williams and Sudano focus on the complicated tug-and-pull of Summer’s artistry, her global fame and volatile personal life.
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Published 22 Feb 2023
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