Donna Summer Comes Into Sharper Focus

The Love to Love You, Donna Summer documentary, which just premiered on HBO Max, takes a deep dive into the life of disco legend Donna Summer, who died of lung cancer in 2012. Co-directed by the late singer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, along with Oscar-and-Emmy-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams, the documentary contains a chockfull of home movies, behind-the-scenes tour footage and does not shy away from difficult moments in the singer’s life. Aside from a brief narration by Elton John, the film also features personal interviews with family and friends including vintage interviews with her parents. In a voiceover, Summer states, “I have a secret life. How many roles do I play in my own life?”

It may come as a surprise to some to know that Summer’s smash hit, “Love to Love You Baby” happened quite by accident. She revealed, “I wrote it as a concept, not as a song, for someone else to write lyrics to.” When it came to the sultry voice and persona she used for the song, Summer added, “It wasn’t me. It was a role.” The original version was extended after Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart played it at a party and guests demanded to hear it repeatedly. The song was eventually extended to 16 minutes and 48 seconds running time. Considered too explicit, the song was banned by the BBC and Summer’s grandmother said, “I’m never gonna be able to go to church again.”

The film reveals private moments between Summer and her three daughters when they were very young. According to youngest daughter, Amanda Ramirez, “I actually remember the first time that we heard ‘Love to Love You, Baby.’ I didn’t even know it existed. Brooklyn came in the room and was like, ‘Have I got a song for you to hear!’” The siblings commented on how private their mother was, recalling how doors would be locked, and they often discovered things about their mom from newspapers or the radio.

Donna Summer was one of seven children growing up in the church. Raised on gospel music, her father would play records by Mahalia Jackson and tell her to sing like the record. One day, the singer’s faith was tested after being molested by a minister when she was 15 years old. She would return to her Christian roots later in life, stating, “When you’re successful and reached your goals, and it feels empty, what happens after this?” In the documentary, Summer’s eldest daughter, Mimi, takes time to address her own childhood trauma of sexual abuse.

A trailblazer, Summer’s feminist anthem “She Works Hard for The Money” would become the first music video by a Black female artist to air on MTV. The song was inspired by a bathroom attendant named Onetta Johnson. Summer saw the woman asleep in the ladies’ room and thought about how hard she worked for her money. Johnson would go on to be featured in the LP artwork on the back of the album, She Works Hard For The Money.

Thanks to studying to become a director and having a studio at home, much of the documentary is from footage shot by Summer herself, including family parties and short films, making it a very intimate portrait of this powerhouse diva.

-Sharon Oliver

Photo: Donna Summer, 1977 (public domain)

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1 comment on “Donna Summer Comes Into Sharper Focus

  1. Oh, Donna Summer, I owe her for all the backseat love music she blared from my radio.

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