Five Things We Learned From The Donna Summer Documentary
Donna Summer is the undisputed Queen of Disco. Still, HBO's captivating documentary, Love to Love You, Donna, which dropped this weekend, delves into the extraordinary life and legendary career of the musical sensation who passed away in 2012 at 63 years old.
From her beginnings in the church to global superstardom, Summer's journey is an inspiration, showcasing her immense talent, resilience, and the profound impact she had on the music industry. The doc, directed by her daughter Brooklyn Sudano and includes tons of never-before-seen footage, will make you dance, reminisce, and celebrate the everlasting legacy of Donna Summer.
Here are five things we learned about the five-time Grammy winner in the powerful film.
Donna Summer Found Freedom As A Black Woman In Germany
The doc goes into the discrimination Donna Summer faced in her early years living in racially segregated Boston, Massachusetts. By her 20s, she moved to New York City and eventually landed a role in the musical Hair, but it wasn't easy.
"There was a lot of pressure being a Black woman. Being a woman was bad enough, but being a Black woman was a double whammy," Summer is hear saying in the doc. She eventually moved to Germany, which helped to empower her. "There were no kind of limits, sort of newfound freedom... Being in Germany, gave me license to be myself and I hadn't had that license before." As a singer and model, Donna Summer was accepted in a way that didn't happen in America.
This was also where she met her first husband Helmuth Sommer, which is how she eventually got the last name, Summer. Under Casablanca Records, Summer eventually returned to the United States and her career would skyrocket.
The Success Of 'Love To Love You Baby' Terrified Donna Summer
In 1975, Donna Summer unleashed a hit that would change music. Co-written by Summer, the song was titled "Love to Love You Baby." Summer's voice is intertwined with a hypnotic rhythm, creating an atmosphere of sensuality and desire unlike anything on the radio. From the moment the first notes echoed through the airwaves, it was clear the song would be a classic.
The documentary reveals the success of "Love to Love You Baby" scared her. The song, which included several orgasmic sounds, was a character she was playing, but people took it seriously. "Everyone that knew me would call me up and say, 'That's not you, is it?' And I would say, 'Yeah, that's me.'" She also said when performing the song, people would rip off their clothes, including their underwear.
"The audience would get completely uncontrollable. And it, it was kind of terrifying."
The song was controversial at the time. It was banned in several countries but ended up being a game-changer in the music industry and Summer's career.
Struggled With Fame
Donna Summer may have seemed like the epitome of success and glamour. However, behind the glitz and the chart-topping records, Summer grappled with her struggles in the face of fame. As her star continued to rise, Summer found herself wrestling with the pressures and demands of the music industry, especially as a mother of three. The relentless schedule, constant scrutiny, and being underpaid by her record label and expectations took a toll on her well-being. Behind closed doors, Summer battled with anxiety and depression.
Her children revealed in the doc that she was extremely private, even with people close to her. They were never allowed in her bedroom and the door was always locked. They often found out stories about their mother through newspaper clippings. Donna Summer wanted to protect her children from the fame that often hurt her. Sadly, fame brought to the surface other issues that Summer struggled with, including being sexually assaulted as a child.
She was born Ladonna Adrian Gaines on December 31, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts. One of seven children, the young songbird, got her start singing in church at the age of 10. Her family was extremely religious and she once got a spanking for wearing red fingernail polish because, according to her father, "that was what whores wore."
Her mother was initially unhappy with the song "Love to Love You Baby," saying she wouldn't be able to return to church after the song was released, especially as her daughter was coined a "Sex Goddess" and the "First Lady of Love." Nonetheless, her family came around and her sisters eventually joined her on tour as background singers.
Summer eventually returned to her religious roots and became a born-again Christian, making her evangelicalism clear on stage. She reportedly made hurtful anti-gay comments in 1983 (saying God made "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"), shocking many fans, considering much of her dance career was built off the LGBT community. The comments then avalanched into Summer being accused of saying God was punishing gay people with AIDS, which she denied in 1989.
A Prolific Songwriter
Donna Summer wasn't just an incredible singer, she was also an acclaimed songwriter.
The doc explained while Donna Summer was viewed as a dance diva, she helped to craft some of her biggest hits. Summer wrote or co-wrote "Dim All the Lights," "On the Radio," "She Works Hard for the Money," and "Bad Girls" -- which the record company insisted they give to Cher, but she refused. "I Feel Love," released in 1977, which was most recently sampled by Beyonce for the song "Summer Renaissance," completely changed music for the time.
While she rarely gets credits, Donna's vision, along with Giorgio Moroder, was behind a sound that defined a generation.
Watch Love to Love You, Donna on HBO Max.