The Dark Days of Donna Summer: How the Disco Queen Overcame Life's Traumas

Printscreen/Youtube/American Bandstand 1976- Interview Donna Summer In a hotel room in In New York in 1976, Donna Summer stepped toward the window ledge. The previous year, her pseudo-orgasmic vocals on the single Love to Love you Baby exploded onto the scene and brought her unimaginable fame. What was unknown to fans was her torn between her sexualized performances and the abusive relationship she was stuck in, as reported by The Guardian “10 more seconds and I’d be gone,” she said later– but her foot got caught in the curtain even then came the maid in. “I felt that God could never forgive me for failing him,” she explained. “I was decadent, stupid, I was a fool. I simply decided that my life had no meaning.” These feelings were hidden from the public who knew her as one of the most captivating and incredibly talented figures in American pop, the woman who would later sing the world-changing I Feel Love, the swaggering Hot Stuff and Bad Girls, the bombastic pop of She Works Hard for the cash and so many other hits. Even now, 11 years since died of cancer, her producer and co-writer Pete Bellot still considers her the best voice he’s ever recorded. “She would sing with this incredible, intuitive feeling. She would immediately own a song. It was always a one-off — she never struggled.” But– as explored in the new documentary, “I Love You, Donna Summer”– behind the brilliant disco queen was a huge struggle. Donna Summer was secretly burdened with trauma, guilt and insecurity. “I was forever changed by this process,” says the film’s co-director — and Summer’s daughter — Brooklyn Sudano. “I’m grateful to be on this side, because it was very intense.” When Summer sang in church as a child, she sometimes struggled to hit the high notes. Frustrated, one day she prayed, “God, please teach me how to sing better. The church was a source of faith and hope for the young singer. She grew up in a deeply religious household, but was sexually abused by a pastor as a teenager. “He did the devil’s job better than most,” Summer’s brother Ricky Gaines says in the film. “It became a defining moment in her life.” Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, Summer was from an early age she was subjected to racism, beaten by gangs of white youth; the scar on her face left her feeling “ugly” and “inadequate”. She also nearly died of strangulation when she was eight. The person she grew into was witty and wildly talented, but also cautious and private. When she became a mother, she kept her bedroom locked, inaccessible even to her own children; when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in her final years, she didn’t tell anyone but her immediate family. “It was very difficult,” she says. Sudano. “We respected her path, but it was difficult because people would ask questions and we would have to say, ‘Oh, she’s fine.'”

This duality of private grief while publicly pretending that everything is a fairy tale– became a major theme of the film. “After her death, many people came to me,” says Sudano. “They wanted to understand why she would make that choice [not to tell them] I thought: we have to tell her story– but really tell it. After moving to New York to join the psych-rock band Crow, Summer landed a role in the musical Hair. The production took her to Germany in 1968, where the family married the Austrian actor Helmut Zomer five years later and had a daughter, Mimi. Working as a backing singer in Munich, she met the producers Belot and Giorgio Moroder. By 1975, the three of them had written Love to Love you Baby, a disco sketch that was so literal in its delivery of sexual moans that the BBC banned it. But already in 1976, Summer did not want that to define her. “I still have a lot to offer,” she told Rolling Stone. The highly erotic music was also fundamentally at odds with her background — as a child, her father beat her for wearing red nail polish because, he said, , “that’s how they wore whores”. her mental decline. “The darkest days of my existence were at the height of my career,” she said. While struggling, Mimi was sent to live with her grandparents, and Summer endured an abusive relationship with artist Peter Mildorfer. On one occasion, she was knocked unconscious by physical abuse. , with a black eye and broken ribs. By the end of 1976, Summer was thinking of killing herself in that hotel room. “Sometimes we were afraid to go into these conversations with relatives — there were a lot of tears,” Williams says. They even tracked down Mildorfer, who was thinking, “I hit her and I could never forgive myself.” “One of the pillars of this film is that these difficult conversations are necessary,” says Sudano. “I knew that my mother had forgiven him, so I felt comfortable in the conversation, and that’s how healing happens. When it is revealed that Mimi was also sexually abused as a child, in the family home by someone related to the housekeeper, the film moves even further away from the traditional music documentary and explores generational trauma and the complexities of being entangled in a family. “Mimi’s story was integral,” says Sudano. “It was so intertwined with my mother’s life and her struggle with motherhood and how to heal her own trauma. There was a lot of healing for Mimi personally, but also for us as a family. Even if nothing had happened with the film, the biggest gift was to help her make that process easier.” In addition to being a form of family therapy, the movie can also be seen as a posthumous collaboration project with Samer herself, given that the story is told through her words and recordings. “We always joked that she directed from heaven,” says Sudano. Donna Summer’s commercial success reached peak in 1979 with the multi-million selling Bad Girl. In 1980 she married Bruce Sudan and by 1982 had two more daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda. Another struck album landed in 1983 with She Works Hard for the cash, but family life became her focus. As did faith , when Samer became a born-again Christian. and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” which caused significant uproar among her fans in the LBGTQ community who played a large role in her success. It was also reported–but later strongly and tearfully denied by the Summer in Advocate–that she said AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.

Williams, who is gay, remembers that period. “I was so affected and hurt by the ‘Adam and Steve’ comment. That’s why I wanted to explore that in this film and find out why,” he said. Samer tried to redeem herself and performed at an AIDS charity, publicly stating, “What people want to do with their bodies is theirs. personal desire.” Although she still has iconic status for many LGBTQ people, Summer felt that her relationship with gay fans tainted. “Having this stain on her legacy was devastating,” Sudano says. “It was very hard for her to get over, because she loved people, and especially that community. Again, it’s about healing. It’s an acknowledgment that this was horrible.” a thing that was very hurtful.” In the film, Sudano says that she is trying to understand the many parts of who she was. “I have a lot more understanding now,” she says. so few tools.”


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