Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
The song that made Donna Summer famous is also where this documentary begins and gets its title. A close up on the lips of the iconic singer as the moan and words that start the song are all the audience is privy to when directors Brooklyn Sudano — daughter of Donna Summer — and Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated and HBO’s The Apollo) start Love to Love You, Donna Summer. It’s about as risqué as the film will get, which suggests the image the film will attempt to paint of Summer’s celebrity persona and her much more wholesome private life. The film never manages to go deep enough into any of the themes or topics, feeling more like a family presentation of their matriarch.
Sudano and Williams use lots of home movies to help depict Summer’s private world cut between archival interviews, music videos, and live performances. We almost never see the people being interviewed, as the filmmakers opt for a voice-over that was likely from a digital conversation based on one shot of Sudano crying after a difficult revelation. In other words, the visual presentation of the film is very standard, and the lack of originally shot footage makes it feel slightly more clinical than it should consider, considering it is a documentary made by the daughter of the subject. While the home movies allow us to dive into an aspect of Summer’s life that was private, the content of those videos is very much performative. There isn’t a candid look into who she was throughout the film, and the filmmakers never really tackle that head-on. It's part of the narrative the film explores, but it is very surface-level exploration.
Despite the film taking a safe approach to the subject, especially some more controversial times, there is still a lot to appreciate. Summer had a tremendous career that feels like it is not discussed as much as some of her contemporaries. Her hit songs include “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “She Works Hard for the Money,” to name a few. These are songs that many have heard, but may not be aware are by her. It’s the moments when the movie focuses on the music it is easy to get lost in, as the songs are undeniably good. If the filmmakers had decided to make the case that Summer was a musical pioneer who doesn’t get the credit she deserves, and then ponder why that is, it would have been more impactful.
It is the film’s inconsistencies with its structure and uncertain focus on why they’re making it that are frustrating. The movie mostly moves chronologically and seems to be primarily concerned with the time after “Love To Love You” became the smash hit — though it does jump back and explore Summer’s youth a little bit. There is a passing section that discusses her being molested by a pastor, a moment where Donna Summer is quoted in a magazine as homophobic, and talks about domestic violence. None of it is explored as much as it is mentioned, and ultimately feeling unfocused. If Sudano had a goal when she decided to make this film, it is unclear what that goal was when the credits rolled. Ultimately, it feels like a stream-of-consciousness rumination on who her mother may have been.
By the conclusion of Love to Love You, Donna Summer, there is nothing particularly wrong with the film. Those unfamiliar with Summer will at least have a better idea of who she was as a person and celebrity. In that way, the film is a success. Those familiar with music documentaries may feel a little letdown and disoriented by the unwillingness to truly commit to a premise or dive deeper into those there.
Love to Love You, Donna Summer will be streaming on HBO Max starting May 20.