Now streaming on:
The practices and politics of stardom is of undying interest in popular culture, and will thrive as new generations of celebrities enter the halls of fame. “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” co-directed by Brooklyn Sudano, Donna’s daughter, and Roger Ross Williams, uses this timeless interest as a stepping stone but operates more personally as a daughter’s retrospective.
The documentary treks through Donna’s career from her work in Germany to her fame in the United States while interspersing tales of her life behind closed doors. “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” opens with Donna singing the titular song—moaning, caressing her body, and gyrating her hips in performance—and then cuts back and forth to a stunning extreme-close-up of her doe eyes. It isn’t a good girl/bad girl cliche, but an introduction to Summer’s indefinability, her dichotomies, and the marked suggestion that we have more to learn.
Through archival footage of performances, interviews, and home videos, as well as testimony from family, “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” outlines not only the highs of her career, but also her troubles as a woman, a mother, and a newfound star.
The strength of the film is its heart, and Summer’s relationships are used not only narratively, but structurally. With frequent narration from Summer’s daughters, and a heavy focus on their childhoods with a loving but distant mother, their desire to understand her beyond her parenthood and into her personhood is the the movie’s foundation.
Equally important is the influence of Summer’s Black womanhood. We see her life as she toes the spectrum from adolescent beginnings in Boston with her religious family to her eventual blossoming as a beacon of unabashed sensuality in the American disco scene. Everything in between is a series of passion and perseverance against the odds. Summer constantly stepped out of societal boxes of expectation with bold determination—she embraced sex in spite of her upbringing and fully and shamelessly championing her identity as the power it was, in spite of being seen as a novelty.
“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” uses her iconic songs to display career benchmarks, as well as her ability to maintain relevance through changing times. Her hit “Love to Love You” emphasized her openness and lean into the sexual culture of the ‘70s, and “She Works Hard for the Money” brazenly pointed a finger at her own label (whom she famously sued for absent payments for her work) while beating in the hearts of the working women of the 1980s. However, amidst these peaks of her life, we’re also exposed to the pressures she endured. Her fame uplifted her just as much as it tore her down, with the constant attention and influences of the industry burying her atop a pedestal—a plaguing dichotomy.
Summer was a pioneer with a finger on the pulse of progression, but she was also a woman fighting against herself every day. The beauty of “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” is in its candid portrayal of Donna the woman, the icon, the mother, and the lover. Where it falters is in its support of her legacy: The music. Aside from needle drops of a few hits, the documentary hardly touches on her discography.
“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” is thorough in its insight on the woman beneath the spotlight but would have benefitted from more insight into her creations themselves. Those unfamiliar with her music will be left feeling alienated from the impact of her legacy by means of not truly being taught. For fans of Summer, the film will only cement her influence and foster a deeper appreciation and understanding. For everyone else, the importance of her footprint will wash away thanks to this documentary’s lack of breadth.
On HBO Max on May 20th.
Donna Summer as Self (archive footage)