“I have a secret life. You’re looking at me, but what you see is not what I am.”
That’s just one of the illuminating self-reflections peppered throughout the new documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer. The film premieres on HBO this weekend (May 20), coinciding with the anniversary of Summer’s death from lung cancer on May 17, 2012.
“The timing wasn’t pre-planned,” Summer’s daughter and the film’s co-director Brooklyn Sudano tells Billboard during a recent phone interview. “But with the anniversary of her passing, it feels like a full-circle moment; like it was meant to be.”
As was the pairing with her co-director, Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, because the duo have delivered a loving-yet-unvarnished look at the real woman — Donna Adrian Gaines — behind the artist who kept the club floors crowded with hot disco, R&B and pop hits such as “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “She Works Hard for the Money.”
As Williams noted to Billboard, Summer “was so much more than” the Queen of Disco. And through strikingly candid comments and recollections by family (including husband Bruce Sudano and daughters Mimi, Brooklyn and Amanda), creative colleagues (producer Giorgio Moroder), Summer herself and others, the documentary peels away the various layers underneath the star persona.
The five-time Grammy Award winner was also a daughter, sister, wife, mother, abuse survivor, painter and a very spiritual being, all while wrestling with the demands and sacrifices that come with stardom. Just as insightful are the accompanying family home movies and backstage/on-the-road videos that Summer shot, as well as memory-evoking concert footage that underscores what a multi-talent she truly was.
Asked what her mother’s reaction would be after watching Love to Love You, Donna Summer, Sudano says, “She would probably be laughing hysterically and saying, ‘See I told you so,’ because she always called me ‘the reporter.’ As a kid, I was always the great sharer of news at the dinner table. So it seems appropriate that my first film report is on her. [Laughs] But I think she’d be very proud.”
Below, find more from Billboard‘s interview with Sudano and Williams:
Before filming began, what was your vision?
Sudano: I had become a mother myself and had lost my mother. So I was grappling with that process and trying to understand it. At the same time, so many people were coming up to me and sharing their personal stories about interacting with my mom or how impactful her music had been in their own lives. I just felt there was so much to say and so much that people didn’t fully understand about my mother and her artistry. So about seven years ago, I talked to my dad about it and he’s like, “Let’s do it.” Then after a bit of time, Roger and I crossed paths. We were able to collaborate in a way that has been truly magical; we were lock-stepped in our vision.
Williams: It had been my dream to make a film about Donna Summer as I’m a huge fan. And when I met Brooklyn, the dream came true. It’s been an incredible journey; from the beginning we had the same vision of not making your typical music documentary, to really dive deep into the emotional core of who Donna was as a person and an artist.
How difficult was it to draw such candid comments from those you interviewed?
Sudano: I don’t think you can really understand somebody or their artistry unless you really know who they are; to see what they’ve been through. It gives deeper meaning to her journey and music. A lot of people were hesitant at first when they began speaking to Roger and I. But they were able to get things off their chest. It was cathartic for them talk about my mother in a way that they hadn’t been able to before. I give everybody credit for being honest and willing because it made the movie what we wanted it to be: deeply personal and deeply grounded. Hopefully, that will set this film apart from anything that’s ever been done on her life before.
Williams: Being interviewed by Donna’s daughter, I think, gave everyone in Donna’s life permission to open up and tell the truth. There were a lot of tears of joy and sorrow. It was a mourning and healing process for everyone involved. They got to talk about a woman they love.
What was the hardest challenge in doing this project?
Williams: For me, the most difficult part was sorting through such an incredible treasure trove of Donna’s home movies, videos and thousands and thousands of photos. There was so much material to create the collage that we did.
Sudano: I agree. When you have a personality and a life like my mother’s that was so full and spans decades, the challenge was in crystallizing all the moments that were the most impactful. And then the songs … using them in a way that was fresh but also as a way to move the storytelling forward. In trying to weave all those things together, I give a lot of credit to our amazing editor, Enat Sidi. Finding the proper structure in making this feel like a real immersive experience was probably the trickiest part.
What one thing did you learn in the process?
Sudano: A better depth of understanding about how intense stardom felt like for my mother and the sacrifices that it took for her and our family … like being a mother and having to be away from her daughters so much. As much as it’s my mother’s story, it’s our individual stories as well because we are part of her. On a personal level, having these conversations with other family members has brought a lot of healing for us. I just have a deep respect and gratitude for my mother’s sacrifices — and respect for the strength it took for her to survive that. What she did was not easy.
Williams: That Donna had this incredible sense of humor. The home movies that Donna would shoot or videos she filmed backstage and on the road were just hilarious. It was a real insight into her personality. Like many, I just knew Donna as the Queen of Disco. But she was so much more than that. She was the first woman to win a rock ‘n’ roll vocal Grammy [for “Hot Stuff” in 1980, when the best rock vocal performance, female prize was first awarded]. I mean come on … that’s an amazing accomplishment. She was the first Black woman artist to have a video on MTV. She was the first in so many things as an artist.
What do you want viewers to take away after watching?
Williams: Donna Summer is an incredibly layered, complex artist who, in my opinion, has been under-appreciated. Everyone who watches this film will see her immense talent and all the facets of her artistry. She deserves that.
Sudano: I want people to understand that my mother was a real artist. That she used her gifts to spread love, joy and healing. And I hope that she’s remembered in the great lexicon of music and culture as somebody who was impactful and influential. This film is an extension of that legacy.