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‘Love To Love You, Donna Summer’ is a documentary that serves as a better personal overlay of a side few got to see

The HBO documentary gives a better insight into the inner workings of “The Queen of Disco,” but perhaps understands how vast Summer’s legacy is.

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© Peter Muhldorfer / HBO

At the beginning of Love To Love You, Donna Summer steadies its focus on the late great singer’s eyes and plays a part in her sultry and sexually explicit 1975 single, “Love To Love You, Baby.” It was the song that broke Summer into the American mainstream – at first was only intended to be a demo recorded by Summer to give to someone else. At the behest of Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart, an almost 17-minute version of the song was recorded and played at midnight stations. In the early part of the documentary, Summer’s sisters Dara and Mary Ellen recalled hearing the record banned in various places and not believing it was her – simultaneously, being happy for her success. The first voiceover you hear from Summer is her proclaiming, “You’re looking at me, but what you see is not what I am.”

She was named the Queen of Disco (even though Summer had a love/hate relationship with the title). Throughout this documentary, the audience will get a sense of a Black woman who never wanted to be placed inside a box. When “Love To Love You” was released, people tried to pin her legacy to that song. Summer wasn’t for it – constantly reinventing herself throughout her career from “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” and later on with a song like “The Wanderer.” The documentary takes more of a role as a personal introspective and makes time to stop at the artistic feats of Summer’s life.

There’s also a sense of a daughter trying to combine the complete pieces of who her mother was into a picture we all can decipher (Love To Love You is co-directed by one of Summer’s surviving daughters, Brooklyn Sudano). The answer is one of human experience – some of the story more defined than others. Summer was the first three consecutive double albums to reach No. 1 on Billboard – also struggling with the constraints of fame, demands of motherhood, and the overall search for who she wanted to be. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Donna Summer was described as a character or a means of self-discovery born after leaving a Boston home rooted in the church and going to Germany in her early adulthood.

Love To Love You ties a lot of its DNA together from archival footage of previous interviews, home videos, voiceovers from Sudano, her aunts and uncles, sisters Mimi and Amanda, Summer’s second husband Bruce, and Summer herself. Throughout the documentary, a contrast between the public and private life Summer led existed. When she performed, there was the vibrant, majestic figure whose songs led millions to the dance floor and elevated the LGBTQ+ community. At home, Summer sought a regular existence of normalcy. Unfortunately, Summer was subjected to sexual abuse from a pastor and racism from white children in her neighborhood. Thus, much of the inner fight with the concept of faith and acceptance was present inside her until her last days.

Much of the documentary speaks of Summer’s legacy of being a trailblazer and letting her successes wag in the face of those who she believed she would be a “flash in the pan” after Disco fell to the wayside. An interview with Arsenio Hall revealed that women identified Summer empowerment anthem “She Works Hard For The Money,” and men still latched on to “Love To Love You, Baby.” However, Sudano and co-director Roger Ross Williams provide more of a rolling admiration of Summer’s career rather than an acute focus. It is mentioned that Summer was the first Black woman to get a video on MTV and how she won the rights to her publishing in a lawsuit against Casablanca Records.

Rather than looking more into her musical evolution, Love To Love You opts to look into the personal – to its credit, it tries to get into the more complex aspects of Summer’s life. Even with all the success she earned, there were aspects of her maternal personality Summer admitted she may have been missing at first. A considerable theme comes toward the documentary's end regarding Summer being a born-again Christian. While it’s described as providing an anchor, Summer's building denouncement of music made her endearing in the hearts of many. This accumulated when the singer was quoted at a concert saying, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

© Courtesy of Estate of Donna Summer Sudano / HBO

Little Richard: I Am Everything chronicled the artist’s back-and-forth approach to his musical calling and feeling like it insulted his Christian nature. Love To Love You touches upon that but stops right when we get into the late controversy surrounding Summer. During the 80s, there was an immense and unjust backlash against the queer community coupled with the outbreak of the AIDS virus. A quote was attributed to Summer about the disease being a reckoning for the lifestyle (which Summer denied and sued over). Much weight is put on the importance of this moment – where there’s a snippet of Summer saying the comments were false in a brief press conference and quotes from her daughters saying how much it affected her. Despite this, the documentary does not give enough credence to how much her songs were a pathway for the LGBTQ and minority communities to be themselves fully.

Thus, this revelation doesn’t feel as impactful as it should be because the needed context isn’t fully realized. One of the great things about the existence of this documentary is how it will make those new to Summer’s legacy see a taste of what a vast talent she was – perhaps imploring you to venture into the extensive musical work she did over her career. Love To Love You pulls back the curtain on things loved ones recounted and how Summer shifted her identity through her own words. “Last Dance” still marks the ending of parties and proms everywhere. The documentary is aware of how much staying power Summer has within the context of timeless music – at times, it doesn’t know when to celebrate it thoroughly.

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