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Sept. 24, 2023

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Donna Summer documentary examines the pain behind the disco decadence

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In the 1970s, Donna Summer was the undisputed Queen of Disco, a powerhouse vocal talent and innovative songwriter whose lusty, chart-topping anthems defined a hedonistic era.

In private, however, Summer was tormented. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a pastor, the singer achieved global fame with the release of the erotically charged single “Love to Love You Baby,” which featured her orgasmic moans and was the first in a string of steamy back-to-back hits. But Summer, raised in a devoutly religious household, was ill at ease with her sex goddess image.

“Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” a documentary that premiered Saturday on HBO, offers an intimate look at the woman behind the sultry persona and the quiet anguish she endured. Directed by Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) and Brooklyn Sudano — who is also Summer’s daughter — the film traces the artist’s rise to the top of the charts, beginning in Boston, where she discovered her singing talent at church.

She eventually landed in Germany, where she forged a life-changing partnership with record producer Giorgio Moroder that resulted in hits like “I Feel Love” and “Bad Girls.” She continued to make music and perform into the 2000s, well after the disco heyday, but also found purpose elsewhere: in painting, raising her three daughters and becoming a born-again Christian.

Full of revealing interviews with friends, collaborators and family members, “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” also features extensive home movies, many of them shot by Summer, who often brought a camera with her on the road.

It revisits some of the most painful moments in her life, including a suicide attempt at the height of her fame, the backlash she received from the gay community after remarking onstage in 1983 that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and a battle with lung cancer that she kept secret from the outside world. (She died of the illness in 2012, at age 63.)

The L.A. Times spoke with Sudano and Williams about the project, Summer’s musical legacy, and the challenges of making a film about one’s own family.

Q: Brooklyn, what made you want to make a documentary about your mother?

Sudano: I lost my mother, and two years later I became a mother myself. In between the grieving process and burgeoning motherhood, I was thinking a lot about my mother’s role as a working mom.

Also, having so many people come up to me and reiterate how much my mother’s music meant — it felt like there was so much more that people didn’t really know about her other than this persona. There were a lot of layers to peel back. I went to my dad [Bruce Sudano, Summer’s second husband] and was like, “I want to do a documentary. What do you think?” He goes, “Let’s do it.”

Q: Roger, how did you come on board?

Williams: I am a longtime fan. I won my high school hustle contest to “I Feel Love.” I’ve always wanted to make a music doc. I was thinking, “Who do I love?” Donna Summer. I started asking around and then Julie Goldman, a producer I work with, said, “Your dream’s about to come true because I’ve just met with Brooklyn Sudano.” I was putting it out in the universe. Then Brooklyn appeared. And we just totally vibed creatively.

Q: How did the two of you approach the subject, given that Donna is Brooklyn’s mom?

Williams: One of the first things I said to Brooklyn was I don’t want to make a puff piece. It’s really important that this is completely honest, and that’s what she wanted, too. This was going to deal with serious issues, around sexual abuse and Donna’s attempted suicide. Brooklyn was able to get members of her family that haven’t talked publicly about Donna to really open up. They trusted her.

Sudano: It was really important to tell the whole story, to have that vulnerability, because that’s where the humanity lies, that’s where you understand why her music connected with people. What I could offer, with Roger’s help, was a real understanding of all the complexities of who my mother was.

Q: Did you come to understand more about your mother through the process of making it?

Sudano: One of the things I’ve taken away more deeply is just how intense that experience of skyrocketing to fame was, particularly from 1975 up until I was born in 1981. The fact that she was able to survive that, and then come out on the other side — I’m in awe of her strength, to be honest.

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Q: Brooklyn, when you were growing up, what did you understand about your mother’s fame?

Sudano: Our lives were affected daily by her fame. She made us a part of her process. We would go to sound checks, rehearsals, music video shoots. Fans would come up to us all the time and share their stories. From very early on, we understood that we had to share our mother, that our mother wasn’t just for us, and there was a responsibility that came with that — to love other people, and to be appreciative of the love that they give us.

Q: The film includes some incredible home movies that show Donna in a very different, almost goofy light. What discoveries did you make while going through this material?

Williams: It was what really got me excited [about this project]. The first thing I saw was the home movie of Donna singing “Hard for the Money” by the pool [in the clip, a casually dressed Summer belts a flawless rendition of the song while holding an infant on her hip]. Because a lot of stuff was filmed by Donna, it’s like she’s the cinematographer. It’s so intimate. Brooklyn would go to the family home in Nashville and go through the basement and discover more stuff. We found the original demo for “Bad Girls” and it’s in the movie, over the credits. It’s so raw and so beautiful. I wept when I listened to that for the first time.

Q: Do you think Donna’s musical legacy has been diminished at all because of the way disco was vilified?

Sudano: My mom’s life was about being creatively forward thinking. She had to continue to fight to be respected. I think that people pigeonholed her as disco. A lot of her songs crossed genres. Early on, you see her singing these standards like “MacArthur Park” that showed her versatility. She was the first woman to win a Grammy [for female rock vocal performance in 1980]. “She Works Hard for the Money” was a big hit and it’s not disco. She really did transcend.

Williams: Disco has been vilified by racists and white supremacist who attacked it because it was a Black and queer form of music. It’s disco and it’s wonderful, and thank God there are artists like Beyoncé, who celebrates Donna Summer in her amazing album [“ Renaissance “].

Sudano: It’s interesting, seeing just how much controversy and stigma there is about disco music. I think that disco laid the groundwork for a lot of what’s happening today in pop music. Giorgio [Moroder] and my mother, they created electronic dance music. EDM didn’t exist before “I Feel Love.”

Q: Roger, when did you personally come to discover Donna’s music?

Williams: At the disco, where we hung out because it was a safe haven for the queer and Black kids in my hometown of Easton, Pa. That’s where we had our yearlong disco competition. It was me and this one guy who looked like John Travolta who was my main competition. I won it all. And the prize was a free trip to Studio 54, even though I was underage.

Q: Did making this feel therapeutic at all?

Sudano: There were really tough moments. And as Roger will say, there were a lot of tears. But I always felt that it was a worthwhile endeavor, that through our vulnerability we were able to find healing. I don’t think that would have happened unless we had this project going on.

There were times where I was like, “I can’t watch this cut right now. I need to go take a nap.” But other family members have seen the film and thanked me because there is this generational secrecy and trauma that’s common in a lot of families, particularly families of color. You don’t talk about things.

Q: How did both of you come to view the comments she made about gay people — and the backlash that ensued — after making this documentary?

Sudano: For me, it was important to understand and acknowledge the hurt that it did cause. Roger and I had lots of conversations about this. My lived experience has always been so much love from the gay and queer community. So revisiting it was tricky, but we hope that it brings healing.

Williams: It was a challenging time for Donna. Religion gave her a place of safety and comfort. Once you understand her journey, from being abused in the church by a pastor to the debauchery of the ‘70s, to a religious reawakening, you understand why the “Adam and Steve” comment came out. You understand how big of a price she paid and what a big mistake it was. It’s about forgiveness.

Q: Here’s an easy one: Favorite Donna Summer song?

Sudano: One of my favorite songs it’s actually a song that my father wrote called “I’m a Rainbow.” It’s not the most popular, but I just love that song.

Williams: Because of its groundbreaking nature and because I won my high school hustle championship to it, I’m gonna say “I Feel Love.” Because I got to go to Studio 54, where I saw Rick James and Teena Marie in person.

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