Tuesday, May 23, 2023

TV: The four stories of LOVE TO LOVE YOU, DONNA SUMMER

LOVE TO LOVE YOU, DONNA SUMMER debuted over the weekend on HBO.  It's a documentary that tells four stories.


First and foremost, it tells the story of HBO versus SHOWTIME.  When SHOWTIME has a documentary on a female singer, it's insipid and laughable.  Most recently, they did a documentary on Sinead O'Conner -- a one hit wonder.  She had a hit when she badly mangled Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U."  She never had another hit and she never will because she can screech but she can't sing.  That's how you end up with 57 singles and only one makes the top forty.  (One more made the top 100 in the US.  Which means 54 singles never charted in this country.)  They could have done a documentary on a female artist -- Liz Phair, Tracy Chapman, etc -- but instead they went with the female version of Falco.  

By contrast, HBO focuses on Tina Turner or someone of that stature.  You know, an actual artist.  And, yes, Donna Summer qualifies for that.  The singer co-wrote a number of her hits and wrote "Dim All The Lights" all by herself.  She came to international attention via disco and charted with "Love To Love You Baby" (co-written by Donna who was inspired by Laura Nyro's "The Confession"), "I Feel Love," "Heaven Knows," "Last Dance," "Heaven Knows," the disco version of "MacArthur Park" and the number one duet with Barbra Streisand "Enough Is Enough."  The same year that last song was a hit, Donna released her BAD GIRLS album which took her into another realm.  Sides three and four of the vinyl album are pretty much one brilliant Donna Summer song after another and all four sides exhibited a shocking growth of artistic talent.  Donna could handle a song and then some.  She had been doing thematic albums as well.  But BAD GIRLS showed she was more than the last dance at midnight or an AM pop hit, she truly was an artist.

BAD GIRLS was the high water mark and the beginning of the downfall.  She'd have a hit with "On The Radio" as the 70s ended and then she'd leave CASABLANCA -- her US label this entire time -- to move to GEFFEN RECORDS (David Geffen's new label -- a big mistake and where was the Laura Nyro inspiration when she needed it -- in the seventies, Nyro had refused to leave COLUMBIA to sign with GEFFEN's ASYLUM RECORDS).  

She moved to GEFFEN for a number of reasons -- disco was considered passe and while she had moved on from just that one genre with "Last Dance" and BAD GIRLS, CASABLANCA was identified with disco; she hated being called The Queen Of Disco; she felt the label was ripping her off; she had battled with them over releases (not just "Dim All The Lights"); and she'd had a major change in life.  THE WANDERER was her first GEFFEN release and, no longer on a disco label, it led to ROLLING STONE finally recognizing the artistic achievements she had made and comparing her in artistic terms to Bod Dylan.

So, yes, Donna's more than worthy of a documentary.


The second story the documentary tells is the story of lies.  It is not that hard to fact check your witnesses.  We're not into the controversial part yet -- where someone will try to defend Donna.  We're talking about basic facts here.

Susan Muneo, Donna's former manager, declares of the "She Works Hard For The Money" video, "She was the first Black female to have a video on MTV."  




It's as bad as the Whitney Houston freaks who lie to insist that Whitney broke down the color barrier on MTV.  


MTV was highly racist at the beginning and for many years after.  But they did play African-American artists even at the beginning -- they just usually didn't play them very often.  Among the women, Grace Jones and Joan Armatrading were played. 


The claim (false) given to Donna Summer by some 'journalists' is that she was the first (with 1983's "She Works Hard For The Money") to get played in heavy rotation.  That's false as well.  Diana Ross' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" (which came out the same year MTV started) was played in heavy rotation as was her 1982 single "Muscles."  And we're not saying Diana's the first.  There may be others.  But we are saying Donna Summer was not (a) the first African-American woman to have a video played on MTV (as the documentary wrongly tells you) and (b) that she wasn't the first African-American woman to be in heavy rotation on MTV (as some 'journalists' tell you).   


It would be really great if films billed as documentaries didn't confuse bad press releases with fact sheets.

The third story that the documentary tells is that of an adult-child.  Just as Robert Downey Jr. recently produced a wonderful documentary about his father (2022's SR.), Donna's daughter Brooklyn Sudano co-produced this documentary.  


As a result, the documentary has access to many things another documentary wouldn't have -- such as access to film Donna made, such as access to her sisters and her brother.  A moving portrait emerges of the Donna they knew.  The human being comes through.  Her first daughter Mimi Sommer speaks to the camera frequently and provides many illuminating stories about Donna's career and about her relationship with her mother.  


Film of Donna coming up with the descending riff from "I Feel Love" or talking about how she realized something was missing from "Bad Girls" and realized it was the men calling a street walker over to the car (that's when she came up with the "Toot-toot, beep-beep" refrain) and Donna at the piano in 1979 with a song she's writing (interrupted when she gets a phone call about CASABLANCA) provide a look at the artist.  More should have been done there, honestly.  Some of the songs chosen shouldn't have been.  By all means, include the one she wrote about her daughter Mimi that was donated to UNICEF for 1979's Year of the Child (Stevie Nicks' donated her "Beautiful Child" song recorded with Fleetwood Mac).  But when she's singing a so-so album song and you're realizing that the bulk of her hits are not included in performance footage in this documentary, you'll probably agree that it could sharpen the portrait of the artist with better song selections.   They could have also brought on music critics -- Nelson George, for example -- who could have placed Donna Summer in context.

But, again, it does bring home the  person.

And it's more honest than we expected.  

Donna destroyed her own career.  It would be very easy for the documentary to ignore that.

She made some hideous comments about gay men.  She did this despite the fact that gay men had been her strongest supporters -- a fact one of her sisters notes early on the documentary.  

Donna enablers and liars did her no help.  They have, for example, insisted that since there's no video of these comments that they never happened.  

Donna's career is now on the downslide.  It is flaming out already.  No, in the pre-cell phone era, there weren't camera crews following around a singer struggling to fill auditoriums.  From 1977 to 1979, she had 8 top forty hits -- four were number ones on the pop charts ("MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls" and, with Barbra, "Enough Is Enough").  She will release 22 singles in the US from 1980 to 1985 and only three singles will go top ten: "The Wanderer," "Love Is In Control" and "She Works Hard For The Money." Four other (for a total of seven) will go top forty.  Seven of 22 singles during a five year period -- contrast that with how, as the seventies wound down, she managed to score one huge hit after another.

The downfall was not surprising.  It's not addressed in the film.  The anti-gay aspect of it is.  But why did Donna become anti-gay?


Donna found religion in October 1979.  Apparently, it had been the devil giving her all of those hits in the 70s. It's amazing that someone who ripped off Laura Nyro could avoid all of Laura's songs about the devil and the drama.   

Donna was basically the female Little Richard in that she had a great career and people loved her but apparently God was calling her back, to hear her tell it.  Drugs, she insisted as the 70s wound down, had led her astray.  She was repenting, she was reborn. And she planned to give up pop music for gospel but couldn't find a label to sign her for that in 1980.

Artistically speaking, she was now boring as hell.  So boring, that NBC cancelled the deal that they had with her to do a special in the fall of 1981. Her longtime producer and songwriting partner Giorgio Moroder told SPIN magazine about a decade ago that Donna was always a homophobe.  That may be true.


But once she was born-again, she felt the need to 'testify' at her concerts.  No one needed that.  Later in her life, in the documentary, she makes a joke about that.  They paid to hear songs and have some fun and there's Donna trying to save their souls.  And on those concerts, also not noted in the documentary, Donna wasn't performing "Love To Love You Baby" -- she's announced as she entered her born-again phase that she was done with that sinful song.


It's in that world that she makes her statement about AIDS being God's punishment for gay men.  


Fierce and defensive Donna fans who can't handle the truth -- check out any DATALOUNGE post on Donna, if you doubt us -- will to this day show up and insist that Donna never made homophobic remarks.  They will insist that not only did she not make the AIDS remark, she never made any homophobic remarks at all. They'll type that there's no evidence.  They'll say it would be on film.  They'll hiss that gay men made up her audience and she wouldn't turn on them.


Like the documentary, they apparently have no idea that Donna cited drug use as leading her away from God and letting her record music that she was now ashamed of.  She had already announced as the 80s began that she would not be performing "Love To Love You Baby" in concert anymore.  She would tell CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC in 1981 that she hoped to drop "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls" next.  That's why she hated "The Queen of Disco" label.  She identified it with sin.  And she was rejecting that past -- that acclaim -- and the audience that gave it to her.  


In the documentary, one of her sisters talks about how Donna got on stage and made her God didn't create "Adam and Steve" remarks.  That was part of her 'testifying' and it was part of her 'retribution' for her own sinful past.  She said it.  She said it in Atlanta and elsewhere.


We'll give the documentary credit for copping to that.  We honestly didn't think it would before we watched.  


However, the documentary then wants to quibble over whether she made the AIDS comment as well.  No, she didn't, the documentary insists. Yes, she did.  She said that in Florida and, publicly, stated to the Canadian press two years afterwards that she thought AIDS was like herpes and, if she'd known people were dying from it, she never would have said it.  In 1989, she gave a variation on that in an interview with THE ADVOCATE declaring, "At the time, I thought AIDS was a herpes pimple, like you get on your mouth.  I certainly didn't have any idea what it really was, and certainly if I had, in my heart I would not wish AIDS on anyone." So her defense was both homophobia and stupidity?


"Adam and Steve" leads right into that comment about AIDS, first of all.  So let's all grasp that and grasp that she had become a public homophobe (again, according to Moroder, she was always one in private). 

The documentary wants to focus on Donna's 1989 letter (to ACT UP and THE VILLAGE VOICE) and play the lie that Donna put in that letter -- she's only recently learned about the rumors, her staff and her family had hidden them from her to avoid her being hurt and she was busy giving birth to two daughters and . . .

1982 and 1981 -- that's when Amanda and Brooklyn were born. (Mimi was born in 1973.)  Clay Cane typed at THE ADVOCATE, in 2012, that after the comments "[s]he soon released a statement."  He then rushes to quote from that 1989 letter.  But Donna responded -- in writing and in interviews -- many times prior to 1989 and those earlier responses make claims in that 1989 letter questionable.    She made the homophobic comments throughout 1983 and on into 1984, at one concert after another.  Donna did respond in 1985 -- in a letter WARNER BROTHERS -- owner of GEFFEN RECORDS -- sent to THE ADVOCATE and to THE VILLAGE VOICE.  Donna wanted to claim in 1989 that she didn't know about it at first, people kept it from her and that's why she was slow to respond. 


Reality: She knew about the problem.  After her initial remarks in Atlanta, she got confronted on it by fans.  In addition, in 1985, Geffen tried to put her in an AIDS benefit that Lorne Michaels was organizing and Lorne made clear that no one would go for that because of her remarks.  David Geffen told her that she had been turned down for the benefit and why.   The homophobic remarks were noted in ROLLING STONE in a 1984 article on Bronski Beat (which had covered "I Feel Love").

She was okay with all that.

Which brings us to the fourth story.  

Get honest.  

How many times do we say that here?  

We've said it in regards to Betty Friedan (before she died) and we've said it in regards to Gloria Steinem (regarding her work for the CIA -- work that THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE NEW YORKER, THE ATLANTIC and others no longer feel the need to ignore). 

Gloria drops dead tomorrow and we're going to have a bunch of Gloria freaks lying for her, others trying to justify that she worked for the CIA.  

Donna never got honest.  She knew what she said.  She refused to own it, admit to it and apologize.  

You should never paint yourself into a corner. 

And you shouldn't leave it to others to clean up your mess.  Donna should have said, "It was a stupid thing and I regret saying it."  People would have understood.  But she couldn't admit it and so now it harms her legacy and her daughter's left to try to explain it.





 Note, in 1987, after her excellent recording of "Dinner With Gershwin" flopped in the US, she wrote one of us (C.I.) that she didn't know what she had to do at this point to get on the radio?  

"Get honest and apologize," was the reply sent back.  [C.I. note: My journals contain letters sent to me by friends -- stapled onto the pages -- as well as copies of my replies.]   If she'd done that, her place in music history would be stronger today.

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