This weekend, Donna Summer’s trailblazing career and complicated life gets the documentary treatment with HBO’s Love to Love You, Donna Summer. Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano and the film’s co-director Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams examine the disco icon’s life and offer an intimate portrait of a private, almost secretive woman, whose relationship to fame, the people who knew her and even her own self remained complicated until she died of lung dancer at age 63.
Archival interviews with Summer and never-before-scene footage shape much of the documentary, which is deepened through interviews with her daughters, siblings, collaborators, and exes. Love to Love You, Donna Summer, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, tracks Summer’s entire career as she went from a figure in Germany’s avant-garde scene and grew into a global sensation, all while navigating a complex inner journey. Here’s what we learned from the new documentary.
She was secretive — even with her own kids.
The documentary highlights the fact that Summer was a deeply private person, even with her own children, especially because she was so famous when they were young. “We were never allowed in her room,” Summer’s daughter Amanda Sudano Ramirez recalls in the film. “We would find out things by reading newspaper articles they had clipped out and hidden in places.” Summer’s daughters even discovered “Love to Love You,” the singer’s influential disco hit from 1975, on their own.
Summer attempted suicide in 1976.
As her marriage to Sommer ended, Summer’s career was reaching new heights. But beneath the disco queen glitz, the star was exhausted and worn out by the industry. While in New York, she attempted to jump from a hotel window. At first, her foot got stuck in the curtain. As she tried to maneuver around it, a hotel housekeeper entered the room.
“Another 10 seconds and I would have been gone,” Summer had said in an archival interview used for the documentary.
She suffered sexual and physical abuse from trusted figures in her life.
The documentary sheds light on some of the darker moments in Summer’s life. Summer claimed she had been molested by a minister as a teenager. The allegations were confirmed by her brother, who said that the minister “did the Devil’s work better than most.” Later in life, boyfriend Peter Mühldorfer would become violent towards Summer due to jealousy at her rapidly increasing fame. Manager Susan Munao recalled a phone call she received detailing how Mühldorfer had beaten his girlfriend until she was unconscious. Mühldorfer confirmed that he had laid hands on Summer, stating in the film “I hit her and I never could forgive myself.”
She never envisioned motherhood for herself.
As both her first husband Helmuth Sommer and first child Mimi Sommer recall, there was a “fire” in the future star that made her feel quite distant from the reality of being a mother. In her own words, Summer had never pictured having a child until it happened. After she and Sommer first separated, Mimi went to go and live with her grandparents primarily. Summer felt great guilt for leaving her child in Massachusetts and wrote the track “Mimi’s Song” inspired by her feelings about the situation.
The singer had director dreams.
When Summer would go on the road, she’s bring a movie camera and make short films with her family, friends and tourmates. The documentary features footage of some of the silly, amateur films she would make with the people in her life. She even told Johnny Carson during an interview that she had set up a studio in her home and was studying to be a director.