Awards Daily talks to directors Brooklyn Sudano and Roger Ross Williams about collaborating on the HBO documentary, Love to Love You, Donna Summer.
Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams admits he is a huge Donna Summer fan, a fandom that led him to his latest project.
“I wanted to make a music documentary about an artist,” says Williams, “and one day it just hit me: Donna Summer! I ran to my husband, another huge fan, and said ‘I want to make a documentary about Donna Summer!'”
Soon Julie Goldman at Motto Pictures would “make his dreams come true” and connected Williams with co-collaborator, director Brooklyn Sudano, who also happens to be Donna Summer’s daughter.
“I knew just from [his film] Life, Animated,” says Sudano, “that he understood family and how to tell a very heartfelt and emotional story. We shared the same vision. We wanted to tell a very honest story, a portrait of a person, a portrait of an artist.”
Even though, for Sudano, it was a bit intense to put together a documentary about her mother.
“Intense is a good word,” says Sudano with a laugh. “It was a very intense experience for me. To be able to go into my mother’s life and history and speak to all these different people from different parts of her life and have a deeper understanding of her as an artist and a person, I feel really blessed to have the privilege to do this.”
‘She’d Take You to Church and Then You’d Go to the Club’
As part of Sudano and Williams’s shared vision, they both agreed this project would not be a puff piece on Donna Summer but an exploration of difficult subjects that had never been talked about from Summer or the family. Rather than using the documentary practice of interviewing talking heads, much of the dialogue includes Donna speaking about her life in her own words, courtesy of 50-plus hours of audio tapes recorded for her memoir, Ordinary Girl.
“We wanted it to feel immersive,” says Sudano. “We wanted you to feel like you were in that exact moment in time with her. The idea for me, when you’d go to one of her stage performances, it was a full-body experience. You were completely there. She’d take you to church and then you’d go to the club.”
Williams says that Sudano really helped interviewees open up. “It was really important that we only stuck to family members and close friends, many of whom had never talked about Donna publicly. Because it was Brooklyn, they trusted her to go there.”
One of those interviewees is Peter Mühldorfer, Summer’s former boyfriend and abuser, who speaks about this dark time in both their lives.
“I wanted to understand,” says Sudano. “I had heard about this person for many years, and I wanted to speak with him. He was with my mother during a very integral time in her life, when she was shooting up to fame. I needed to speak with him and see what was there. I also understood that my mother forgave him. I think that, again, this film is about her and her artistry, but also about healing and forgiveness.”
“That was a very sensitive, complex, and complicated interview to do,” says Williams. “I think Brooklyn gave him permission, and he was surprisingly honest, reflective, and open. He was incredibly candid.”
Queen of Disco or Queen of Rock?
Most fans obviously associate Summer with the disco music genre, but the documentary reveals that at one point she was the frontwoman for hard rock band The Crow and admired Janis Joplin. Would the Queen of Disco rather have been the Queen of Rock and Roll?
“She saw Janis in person,” says Sudano, “and that was very groundbreaking for her, for her to see this woman own her sexuality and freedom.”
Summer often struggled with expressing her sexuality, both because of self-esteem issues as well as the influence of religion. When Summer was a child, a father in her neighborhood called her “Ugly Donna” because of a scar on her face.
“There was a deep insecurity about that,” says Sudano, “but I also think that overt sexuality as we show in the film is not something that was celebrated in her family dynamic and community.”
Rock and Roll played a part in how Summer’s musical sound progressed over time. While she gets pigeonholed as “disco queen,” her music transcended genres. After all, she won the first Grammy for Rock Female Vocal—ever.
“As a teenager singing in a rock band to being in Hair to winning the first Female Rock Vocal [Grammy], she is the Queen of Rock and Roll,” says Williams. “The moral of the story is that Donna Summer is much more than disco.”
Love to Love You, Donna Summer airs on HBO starting May 20.