Metro Weekly

‘Love to Love You’ Review: Summer Love

HBO’s enthralling 'Love to Love You, Donna Summer' reveals an eclectic artist who didn’t set out to rule disco, but she did.

Love to Love You - Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder - Photo: HBO
Love to Love You – Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder – Photo: HBO

Donna Summer fans might wish for a more comprehensive documentary bio than HBO’s Love to Love You, Donna Summer (★★★★★), but it’s hard to imagine a more intimate portrait of the woman, artist, mother, and hit-making Queen of Disco than this fascinating music-filled odyssey.

Co-directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and actress-director Brooklyn Sudano, the middle of Summer’s three daughters, Love to Love You is framed as the family’s attempt to, as Brooklyn puts it, “figure out the many pieces of who Mom really was.”

Summer, who succumbed to lung cancer in May 2012, provides the filmmakers key pieces to the puzzle by way of her songs and performances, recorded interviews, and footage she shot herself with her treasured Sony movie camera.

At the height of her ’70s fame as pop’s First Lady of Love, Summer bought the camera because she loved making movies — and to entertain herself and the crew while on tour, according to her sister Mary Ellen, who sang backup. The video skits and home movies reveal the singer to be an unapologetic goofball, far from the gyrating diva of so-called Sex Rock that her label Casablanca Records was selling.

Sex siren was merely a role she played, Summer explains in an interview voiceover. She considered herself more of a natural comedian who rarely got a chance to show it. Born and raised in Boston, with a strict upbringing in the AME Church, she emerged from a cloistered ’50s childhood into the free-wheeling ’60s as the hippie lead singer of a Boston rock band called The Crow. “I was the crow,” she quips of the otherwise all-White band.

The Crow lit out for New York City, where Summer — still Donna Gaines, at the time — was spotted by a director who cast her in a German production of Hair. On that production, she met first husband, Helmuth Sommer, hence the name, and from their union came daughter Mimi, whose present-day testimony in the film also proves key to the story of who Donna Summer really was.

 

Mimi’s painful revelation of sexual abuse, perpetrated by a trusted figure at the family’s ranch, echoes her mother’s own traumatic past. Their tragic connection underlines Love to Love You’s frank portrayal of Summer’s bouts of depression. Despite the massive success of hit singles and albums, sold-out tours, and international fame, Donna Summer carried a sense of shame and insecurity that left her feeling, in her words, empty. 

Ultimately, the film concludes, she found some peace in the embrace of family and faith. Her family still has her back. Interviews with singer-daughter Amanda Sudano, musician husband Bruce Sedano (also an executive producer of the film), and sister Mary Ellen, the movie’s quotable MVP, reflect the joy Donna Summer brought to their lives and to the world. 

And the filmmakers make sure viewers know and appreciate not only her supernova stardom but her artistry, which left an indelible mark on music and culture. Her dozens of awards, nominations, and chart achievements are relegated to a brief montage, while the movie instead focuses on Donna making music.

Choice behind-the-scenes footage of Donna creating at the mic or at the piano emphasize her songwriting and vocal dexterity. Over the course of the movie’s 107 minutes, viewers will hear her sing ’60s rock, show tunes, Europop, gospel, soul, disco, and not in just one voice. She talks about coming up with the breathy, high-pitched vocal delivery of her first disco tracks, compared to the powerful, church-trained pipes she’d bring to Oscar-winner “Last Dance.”

The movie unspools fabulous archival footage tracing Summer’s chameleonic, pre-disco career, from rocking with The Crow and greeting “The Age of Aquarius” in German, to clips of her early starlet appearances on German TV. Then came the song that would change her life: “Love to Love You Baby,” written with Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder, the influential producer Summer calls a redemptive force in her life, a decent man in show business to make up for all the awful men she’d met.

The lusty “Love to Love You,” promoted by Casablanca Records with a 16-minute, moan-filled version played on late-night radio, was banned by the BBC and elsewhere, yet launched a phenomenal run of hits that kept Summer on tour, on magazine covers and late-night TV talk shows nonstop for five years. Sister Mary Ellen credits the gay community for embracing “Love to Love You,” and propelling Summer’s initial success in clubs. 

Elton John corroborates that a second Summer, Moroder, Bellotte collaboration, the groundbreaking electro hit “I Feel Love,” had the boys at Studio 54 screaming with ecstasy on the dance floor. So, of course, that community who loved and supported her throughout her career, that was devastated by the AIDS crisis, was deeply hurt to think their Disco Queen might ever turn her back on them — seemingly the case when born-again Donna reportedly made a number of anti-gay comments in the ’90s.

 

The movie seeks to clarify which comments Summer did say, and which might have been fabricated or exaggerated. In her own words, and those of her husband Bruce and sister Mary Ellen, the episode is recalled with regret, apology, and a palpable hope that her audience forgives, and can still feel the love she put into her music. That’s certainly what she would have wanted.

Donna Summer: Love to Love You premieres Saturday, May 20, at 8 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.

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