As disco has boogied back to life, the new Donna Summer doc revives its undisputed queen
When the pandemic hit, and we were all trapped in our houses, pop divas the world over seemed to agree on one thing: it's time to dance, dammit.
Disco came roaring back, with albums from Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue, and Beyoncé, among many others, burning with that familiar disco fever. And they all owed a debt of service to the undisputed queen of the genre, Donna Summer.
In the new Max documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer from filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and Summer's own daughter Brooklyn Sudano, the singer-songwriter's tremendous impact on music is shown in a glittering new light.
Summer has always been a bit of an anomaly when it comes to the history of Black women in popular music. Like many before and after her, she was raised in the church, but she was never a traditional soul or R&B singer. Instead, her greatest, most lasting success came with disco — dance music with roots in soul and R&B that blossomed in the very un-churchlike gay Black and brown clubs of New York and Chicago.
The disco queen was never given much credit as a vocalist or a songwriter, but she excelled at both. She wrote her first hit, 1975's "Love to Love You Baby," not as a song but as "a concept for someone else to write a lyric to." She made up a voice and created a vibe — a vibe that, in the hands of Casablanca Records co-founder Neil Bogart, went on to include 16 minutes of feigned orgasms.
"Love to Love You Baby" was originally only 3:20 but Bogart (most likely with the help of cocaine) soon realized that the song should be longer and asked for a 20-minute version, using the song as a gimmick to appeal to radio stations. The raunchy track would only be played at midnight, billed as "20 minutes of love."
"Love to Love You Baby" became a massive hit and made Summer an international star. For the next five years, Summer had a nearly unparalleled string of hits, most notably 1977's "I Feel Love," one of the most transformational songs of the 20th century.
Written by Summer, Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder, and English songwriter and producer Peter Bellotte, "I Feel Love" presaged electronic music and, more than any other song before or since, influenced the evolution of dance music.
"I remember when 'I Feel Love' came on at Studio 54. You just stopped in your tracks," Sir Elton John recalls in voiceover in Love to Love You. "People screamed. It just went on and on and on. You didn't want it to stop. It sounded like no other record. It changed the way people thought about music."
Beyoncé, ever the student and teacher, sampled Summer's seminal "I Feel Love" for her own euphoric "Summer Renaissance," the closing track to her disco opus (discopus?) Renaissance, itself an exploration of the history of dance music.
Between 1978 and 1979, Summer held court on the Billboard charts, with the Oscar-winning "Last Dance," from the Thank God It's Friday soundtrack, "MacArthur Park" (No. 1), "Heaven Knows," "Hot Stuff" (No. 1), "Bad Girls" (No. 1), "Dim All the Lights," "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," a duet with Barbra Streisand (No. 1), and "On the Radio."
"Dim All the Lights," a Summer composition, was on its way to the top when Bogart and Casablanca decided to release "No More Tears," against Summer's wishes. She wanted "Dim All the Lights" to have its run, but as soon as the gays heard "It's raining, it's pouring, my love life is boring me to tears" it was curtains for "Dim All the Lights." It peaked at No. 2, to Summer's chagrin.
Streisand was one of the many big stars who had decided to ride disco's coattails, but once the backlash hit, the genre lost what little respect it had in the first place. Which wasn't a lot. And because Summer sang disco, she wasn't ever really taken seriously either, despite playing a large part in her own music and sound.
She even came up with the "toot toot, heeeeey, beep beep" in "Bad Girls." The song had been completed when Summer took a listen and decided something was missing. It needed a hook. She had the idea of trying to get the attention of a sex worker, honking the horn. And a classic was born.
As disco's popularity waned, so did Summer's, but she also grew tired and disillusioned with the music industry. At the height of her success, she contemplated committing suicide. Eventually, she turned back to the church, becoming a born again Christian. It was then that her career suffered a misstep from which it never truly recovered.
At the onset of the AIDS crisis, Summer was credited with saying that "God didn't make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve," a statement the doc admits she did make, albeit offhandedly, during some concert patter. Still, her family retains she held no anti-gay sentiment.
Summer, in not addressing her comments, was further accused of saying that AIDS was God's punishment to the gay community, something she denied at the time, but which became part of her legacy.
The gay community had worshipped at the hem of Summer's disco goddess garment and so the fallout over what turned out to be rumors was swift and severe. 'Cause the gays, well...we love to hold a grudge.
But we also love disco, perhaps even more than holding a grudge. Slightly. Songs like "I Feel Love" and "No More Tears" and "Hot Stuff" and "Last Dance" are monuments in queer culture, and thus, American culture. Disco is the sound of love, of freedom, of ecstasy, and so, of course when the world turned upside down (you're turning me), it felt like the right sound for the wrong moment in time.
Donna Summer, then, is as important a figure in pop music as David Bowie or Stevie Wonder, or any of those icons who shaped the '70s zeitgeist. To paraphrase one of those icons, and unofficial Ambassador of the Gays, Sir Elton John, Summer changed the way people thought about music.