Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Love To Love You, Donna Summer’ Covers New Ground

Director: Brooklyn Sudano and Roger Ross Williams
Stars: Michael McKean, Barbra Streisand, Brooklyn Sudano

Synopsis: Follows the life of iconic singer Donna Summer.

These days, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to take disco music seriously. It was seen as a vulgar, trashy genre that lacked depth and sophistication. Even pioneers of the genre, such as Giorgio Moroder and Wally Holmes, were dismissed as coke-snorting party animals who indulged in mindless pleasure. The divas who served as the public face of the genre had an even more difficult time gaining respect from audiophiles and critics. Over the years, efforts have been made to rehabilitate the reputation of the genre but there is still a lingering sense, in some circles, that it was a frivolous fad that should be left in the past. 

No one seems more primed for a critical re-evaluation than Donna Summer, who was one of the most commercially successful recording artists of the 1970s. In addition to delighting audiences with her brassy stage persona, Summer recorded some of the most innovative songs of the 1970s. “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby” signaled the fact that the Moog synthesizer could be employed to create a futuristic, otherworldly soundscape that made club-goers want to get up and dance. She also became a prominent gay icon, who projected an air of breezy sexuality that stood in stark contrast to the brand of prim conservatism that had been typically associated with pop singers. She managed to personify a very specific time in American history and her large body of work has served as a major influence on modern dance music. 

For the most part, Love to Love You, Donna Summer (2023) serves to elevate Summer’s position in the canon of American popular music. This approach serves the documentary’s subject well, as it manages to set itself apart from the likes of Miss Americana (2020) and Angèle (2021). Those were intimate exposés that devoted a considerable amount of their running times to exploring the personal lives of their subjects. This documentary has an unusually strong sociopolitical dimension that regularly comes to the fore. There are times when it even begins to feel like an editorial on the mistreatment of women of color in an industry that is largely dominated by white men. I say this as a compliment, as it has become increasingly difficult to find family-approved bio-docs that are willing to expand their scope beyond the personal. Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano endeavor to move beyond the conventions associated with this genre in order to produce something that feels more politically charged. It’s this unique perspective that provides this documentary with its backbone and prevents it from drifting into bathos. 

Longtime fans will also be given the opportunity to pore over recently unearthed archival footage and in-depth analysis of some of the deeper cuts from Summer’s discography. It’s nice to hear them play the biggest hits, but it really does count for something when they begin to consider the later stages of her career. Like so many stars who created an iconic stage persona, Summer was forced to reinvent herself in the years following the disco boom. The backlash to the genre’s success was swift and she struggled to avoid being seen as a passé cultural commodity in the early 1980s. This documentary provides us with a window into how the music industry handles these ups and downs and details Summer’s conflicted response to the changes that swept through the disco scene during this period. We get to view her as a canny businesswoman who knows how to play all the right angles for maximum effect. This is a quality that we associate with many pop stars but this documentary is unusually candid in its treatment of this issue. 
If you’re already a dedicated fan of Summer, you’ll walk away from this documentary feeling satisfied. It covers ground that hasn’t been trodden over in the countless biographies that have been written about her and avoids making too many generalizations about her career. More surprisingly, this is a documentary that still presents a certain appeal for those who are not all that familiar with her work. Everybody is interested in the inner workings of an industry that works very hard to project a shadowy, mysterious aura and Love to Love You, Donna Summer gives you a peek behind the curtain. This is more than just a promotional puff piece and for that we can all be glad.

Grade: B

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