Sometimes, when a documentary has a great subject, it can explore that subject with an intimacy that’s arresting, only to treat other aspects of the story with a kind of cavalier casualness. “Love to Love You Donna Summer” is that kind of documentary. Co-directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano (who is Summer’s daughter), it’s full of home movies and photographs and archival footage of Donna Summer, and it creates an eye-opening portrait of the ambitious, vivacious, yet troubled woman she was. We see her when she was growing up in Boston, where she sang gospel in church and felt a gift passing through her, knowing that she was going to be famous, or when she moved to Munich in 1968, at 19, to be in the German production of “Hair” (there’s a startling clip of her onstage, in long dark pigtails, singing “Aquarius” in German), or later on, after she’d become a pop star, at home with her daughters, lost in the empty mirror of fame.
The two sides of Summer are embodied in her contrasting looks. When she was up onstage, commanding arenas, shimmying her shoulders like the sultry disco diva she was, her face was made up into a kind of mask (blue eye shadow, crimson lips, purple cheeks, big round eyes and plucked lashes that became part of the mask), topped by a mountain of curls that were like no one else’s. All of it lent her wholesome beauty a slightly vacant quality that made her the perfect avatar of disco. At home, without her makeup, we see the woman beneath, often glum, exhausted, and washed out, living with an underlying guilt and despair for all the time she spent on the road, leaving her young daughters behind.
“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” takes us up close to Donna Summer: her demons, her desire to be an artist, the sense that when she was “Donna Summer,” it was a character she was playing. That sort of thing is probably true of many pop and rock stars (Mick Jagger wasn’t prancing around like a rooster on acid in his living room), but in Summer’s case the tension was heightened by the role she was playing: the erotic dance-floor diva, who’d launched her career by lacing moans of ecstasy into “Love to Love You Baby” — which, given her extraordinary vocal talent, was a transgressive thing for a woman to do. She blazed a trail. She wore the radical sex positivity of disco, which she had done a lot to invent, as a flamboyant costume.
But oh, do I wish the movie gave you a richer sense of Summer’s development and identity as an artist. Early on, there’s a clip of her singing “Lady of the Night,” the catchy Euro pop song that was the title track of her 1974 debut album. Summer, at this point, sounds like Ronnie Spector crossed with ABBA, and it’s clear that she would have been a major pop singer even if disco had never happened. That album marked her first collaboration with Giorgio Moroder (working with his songwriting and production partner, Pete Bellotte), yet the film never even mentions that. Summer’s relationship with Moroder, the Italian genius wizard of disco who became her mentor, protector, and studio-recording collaborator, is dealt with for about 90 seconds, as the documentary touches on the recording of “I Feel Love,” the momentous epic of throb that was the first pop single to use a drum machine. Yet the arc of their connection remains vague. You’d never even know that Moroder also composed “Love to Love You Baby.”
We do see a clip of Neil Bogart, the founder of Casablanca Records, telling the fabled story about how he played a tape of “Love to Love You Baby” at a party (the song was then three minutes long), and his guests kept asking him to play it again. That’s when he realized that the song should be longer, much longer — not a quickie but an extended erotic encounter. He got in touch with Moroder about it, and a 17-minute version was released to dance clubs. The rest is orgasmic history.
This stuff was all happening in the mid-’70s. Then we hear Summer in voice-over, ruminating on the challenges of stardom, and the film suddenly flashes on images of the Sunset Strip, along with footage of people flipping through record bins and finding copies of “Bad Girls,” the Summer double album that keyed off that nightlife. “Bad Girls,” released in 1979, was a tremendous album, as well as a defining event in Summer’s career. But it’s not a record you can just toss at the audience as if it were one more thing that happened, and wouldn’t that make for some cool transitional atmosphere?
“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” features interviews with Summer’s three daughters (Brooklyn and Amanda Sudano and Mimi Sommer) as well as her husband, Bruce Sudano, all of whom remain off camera (we hear their words), in what has become the standard mode in documentary filmmaking, a way to keep talking heads from interrupting the archival flow. The interviews are illuminating; Summer’s family members speak of her with complicated reverence, and with an appreciation for the currents of despair that she nurtured in private.
The movie, however, should have used Summer’s music as more of a framework to give meaning to the journey of her life. There’s a snippet of Elton John, in voice-over, testifying to what it sounded like to hear “I Feel Love” played on the dance floor of Studio 54, and how it changed the course of pop music. And Summer tells a good story about how she felt something was missing from the title track of “Bad Girls,” which is how she came up with the playfully subversive idea of adding the beep-beeps — the sound of johns’ car horns trying to attract the attentions of hookers (her word).
Yet the movie gives you very little sense of how Summer, as the disco revolution was peaking, fitted into the larger firmament of pop music. That said, the clips we see of her in performance are stunning. Onstage, as she sings “On the Radio,” the gorgeous “MacArthur Park,” or the divine “I Love You,” we experience the stalwart glory of her voice, the way that she could soar like no one else. She captured the romance at the heart of disco: the yearning that surged up through the sexuality and transcended it. It’s a disappointment that the movie doesn’t include her greatest song of the ’80s, the incandescent “This Time I Know It’s for Real.”
What’s more, the film is too fuzzy, to the point of trying to have it both ways, about the controversy that embroiled Summer after she’d become a born-again Christian and allegedly, during a concert in 1983, tossed out viciously homophobic remarks, saying that “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and suggesting, in her most reprehensible moment, that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. That these words could come from an artist who had been such a liberating force in gay culture was a deeply cruel irony. We see footage of Summer, at a damage-control press conference, denying that she ever said those things. But I don’t believe the denial.
What I do believe, and what the film captures, is that Donna Summer, in addition to being a towering artist, was a damaged soul who’d veered off course in the very act of trying to save herself. The film covers the last period of her life, when she was battling lung cancer and, according to her husband, refused to talk — ever — about the death she was facing. Yet her daughters describe her vulnerability, and it’s heartbreaking. Maybe it’s best to let her music speak for her. Summer died too young (at 63), but as “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” captures, the woman who made “I Feel Love” into an anthem lifted you to a place where you couldn’t help but feel it too.