“Intimate” is an overused word in biographical documentaries, but with her daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, serving as co-director “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” more than fits that description, providing an up-close look at the disco diva’s life and astonishing talent, without sugarcoating its thornier aspects. Even in a boom time for musical profiles, this HBO presentation shines brighter than most.
Featuring bountiful clips of Summer performing that take viewers back to the ’70s, garish disco outfits and all, the overall effect is almost immersive. And with extensive access to home movies and interviews with Summer’s children and exes, the deeply personal aspect is evident when Sudano – who shares directing credit with Roger Ross Williams – notes that she’s “trying to figure out the many pieces of who mom was.”
“Love to Love You” opens with Summer as most remember her, crooning the hit used for the title. Elton John discusses the effect of hearing her amped-up disco numbers like “I Feel Love” at a club, with its electronic sound courtesy of composer/producer Giorgio Moroder and raw sexuality, as being intoxicating, saying, “It sounded like no other record.”
Summer had moved to Germany before returning to the US, launching a recording career that would place her in rarefied air in terms of her chart-topping legacy. That gradually included taking control over her career, illustrating her vocal power on songs like “MacArthur Park” and eventually breaking with and suing the company that launched her, Casablanca Records, over a creative dispute, before going on to additional success with David Geffen.
The warts-and-all components include the fact that despite her jaw-dropping range the singer didn’t always have great taste in men, which produced some ugly and violent interludes. Summer also embraced evangelical Christianity later in life – despite the complicating factor of having been molested by a pastor in her youth – and made comments perceived as deriding the gay community that had comprised a significant portion of her fan base in her heyday, triggering feelings of anger and betrayal.
Summer was, in other words, a complex personality, but one who left an enduring musical footprint that made her one of the signature figures of her era. That’s merely magnified by her death in 2012 at the age of 63.
By the time it’s over, “Love to Love You” might not have completely put together the pieces of who Summer was, but it has fostered an appreciation for what she produced, particularly during that inordinately fertile span of hits during the late ’70s.
From that perspective, for anyone who ever loudly sang along with “Bad Girls,” “The Last Dance” or “Dim All the Lights,” what’s not to love?
“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” premieres May 20 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.