Love to Love You, Donna Summer is not just a documentary, it’s a hymn to the life and times of the indisputable queen of disco. The film conveys Donna Summer’s journey from the gospel churches of Boston to the dance floors that defined an era. Directed by first-time helmer and Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano and Roger Ross Williams (The Apollo, Traveling While Black), Love to Love You weaves together interviews, footage and the singer’s infectious music to deliver a new perspective on the life of a vocal powerhouse. As part of the Deadline FYC House + HBO Max Event series, we spoke with Sudano, Williams and producer David Blackman on the red carpet at the New York premiere.
“I think it’s important to see somebody’s life in full and to really understand that my mom was much more than just the disco queen title,” said Sudano.
For her, this is something that’s been in the works for a long time, but when creating something deeply personal, how does one prepare to do that with reverence and care? According to the director, there is never a perfect moment.
“I don’t think there is anything you can do to prepare,” she said. “You just have to jump. I think if you overthink anything too much, then you won’t do it.”
Sudano could have collaborated with anyone, but she chose Williams as he’s no stranger to the documentary space. His previous work captures the human experience with empathy and authenticity that pushes the boundaries of storytelling, shedding light on marginalized voices and inspiring audiences around the world. As a fan of Summer, he leapt at the chance to work on the life of a singer whose music shaped his adolescent years. “My No. 1 favorite Donna Summer song is ‘I Feel Love’ because I won my high school Hustle contest to that song,” he said.
When asked about compromising discussions he had with Sudano about the story they wanted to tell, Williams said: “We also wanted it to be deeply personal. We wanted it to be from the perspective of the family that no one else could access except Brooklyn. Working together as co-directors was a natural and organic process for both of us.”
The director duo found another collaborator in producer David Blackman, Polygram Entertainment’s Head of Film & Television Development and Production. He was excited about boarding the documentary that aimed to capture the life of such a legendary character.
“When artists are interested in doing these types of projects that involve music, I am the first call within the company. I leapt at the opportunity to produce because she’s such an iconic female artist that hasn’t gotten her due,” Blackman said with a hint of determination. ”I knew we could make something that was both emotionally engaging and a visual spectacle.”
The documentary contrasts the intensity of her religious upbringing and choir days against the frenzy of her disco reign. The documentary features archival footage and personal audio from the singer’s own mouth that doesn’t shy away from the darkness that can accompany fame. The audience stands side by side with Summer (born LaDonna Adrian Gaines) to see the underbelly of the disco era and all the sexism, the racism and overall relentlessness that comes with being a famed musician. In addition, the film lays her cards bare as it delves into the pop diva’s internal battles, her struggles with depression and addiction. Sudano goes on to explain why it was important for her mother to use her voice within the film.
“We decided early on that we were going to do audio interviews. We didn’t want talking heads because we really wanted the audience to feel immersed in the moment,” Sudano said confidently. “Having my mother as the narrator of her own story adds to the strength of the narrative because the audience can see the world through her eyes. This helped ground Love to Love You in reality.”
There is a healthy amount of video and audio of Summer. While watching, it’s easy to wonder how Sudano and Williams collected it all. They didn’t have a vault with everything they needed in one place, the info gathering required some footwork. She gives praise to brother-in-law Rick Doer for being able to help curate what was needed.
“He went through all the storage, and he really started to unpack and uncover a lot of these things after my mom passed,” she said. “We had 32 binders full of negatives and photos, and he compiled all of it.”
She also explains that there was so much to choose from — labeling it an “embarrassment of riches” — in addition to footage of performances and interviews that she hadn’t seen before. Sudano and Williams found it tricky going through the archives to find what fit within the narrative and what would have the biggest impact. Even the music is used for a specific purpose as they couldn’t fit her whole discography into only two hours.
Summer was a revolutionary in her own right. Her 1983 hit, “She Works Hard for the Money” was the first by a Black woman to premiere on MTV. Her use of synthesizer changed the course of music as we know it. This is what we know about her career, but this documentary shows that Summer not only was a talented singer, songwriter and musician who paved the way for so many but self-aware, humorous and deeply introspective. Sudano and Williams wanted the audience to know, which is why they decided to end the film with music video bloopers of the disco queen.
“My mother was extremely funny, extremely grounded and did not take herself seriously,” said the director. “She was always looking for a joke, so it felt right to end with that because we wanted people to leave feeling lighthearted and joy because it was my mother’s legacy.”
“Dim All the Lights,” “I Am a Rainbow,” “MacArthur Park” and “On the Radio” being among Sundano and William’s favorite songs by Summer, the two want others to know the diva was much more than the Queen of Disco. She was a full-fledged artist who created her own songs, music, costumes and persona. For all its glitz and glam, Love To Love You, Donna Summer never loses sight of its subject. Amidst the nostalgia, viewers are reminded of her raw talent, her determination and influence on modern music. It’s a powerful homage to a woman who in many ways defied the odds to become an icon, leaving audiences with an understanding of Summer that goes far beyond the dance floor.
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