The Queen of More Than Disco in Love to Love You, Donna Summer

Director Brooklyn Sudano looks beyond the mirrorball at the woman she called Mother


The fabric of modern dance music may be cut from Donna Summer's creative work, but the 1970s queen of the mirrorball saw disco as something of a vehicle to get somewhere else. So we learn in Love to Love You, Donna Summer, the new biodocumentary receiving its North American premiere at this week's South by Southwest Film & Television Festival.

“We’re all spiritual, but we err on the side of love.” – Brooklyn Sudano

The film lightly excavates the story of her life and is co-directed by her daughter, actor Brooklyn Sudano, and Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated). Summer's influence as nightclub royalty remains regardless, seen in homages to "I Feel Love" by the likes of Beyoncé on recent dance album Renaissance. Her Destiny's Child bandmate Kelly Rowland told Sudano that when she and Summer shared the stage for a 2012 VH1 Divas special, she felt that she'd finally made it. The story echoed a memory Sudano shared. "Mother," as she called Summer, loved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and chanteuse and dancer Josephine Baker equally. She helped Baker off the stage once and felt a parallel moment of awe. It was a "passing of the baton" moment, said Sudano.

Rowland's interview did not make the film, but Sudano said she was elated at the final product, which illuminated her mother's trauma and healing journey. Sudano knew she could have delved more deeply into her mother's music, but "the most impactful aspect" was the real relationships she had, said her daughter, like her working relationship with electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, who Summer praised for redeeming other men by being decent and caring where others were not.

Though ambivalent about disco, Summer merely tolerated the role of sex kitten. Her personal self-image was never as sultry. Summer was not necessarily all good girl, either. But after the "Bad Girl" singer found success and still felt empty, she returned to the Christian faith from which she emerged as a young gospel powerhouse.

As Summer says in archive footage, she crossed lines of her own morality first and could not forgive herself. After a foiled attempt at suicide, she was born again. Thus, the stage was set for fans to recoil in horror when Summer reported remarks about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Her statement about AIDS being punishment for sins was another strike against her. Summer did not do enough to explain herself in the moment, says the film, and felt personally torn over being misunderstood as a vector of hate when the community was truly dear to her heart. Have her daughters kept the faith? "We're all spiritual, but we err on the side of love, not legalism," said Sudano.



24 Beats per Second

Love to Love You, Donna Summer

U.S. Premiere

Sat 11, 5:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

Sun 12, 8:30pm, AFS Cinema

Tue 15, 9pm, Alamo South Lamar

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW 2023, Brooklyn Sudano, Love to Love You, Donna Summer, 24 Beats Per Second

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