Donna Summer singing in a white feathery outfit
Credit: HBO via Variety

Donna Summer became one of the most iconic recording artists of the 70s and 80s while breaking racial barriers and subverting gender expectations and social norms. But what do we really know about her? What do we really know about anyone in the public eye versus what they want us to believe we know? As Summer (born LaDonna Adrian Gaines) asks in the audio clip that opens Love to Love You, Donna Summer: “I have a secret life. You’re looking at me, but what you see is not what I am. How many roles do I play in my own life? ‘Who is she?’” 

In search of the answer, directors Brooklyn Sudano (one of Summer’s daughters) and Roger Ross Williams plumb press snippets, home videos, and archival footage, and conduct intimate conversations with the singer’s family, friends, and colleagues. While some have critiqued the film for skimming much of Summer’s development as a musician and songwriter, including her work with electronic music master Giorgio Moroder (among other chapters), that misses the point; this is a daughter’s exploration of who her mother was at her core, and why she lived her life and made her choices the way she did. 

To that extent, Love to Love You paints a vivid picture of a remarkably talented, creative woman on the run from racism, sexism, and an oppressive religious environment. From her singing debut at her family’s church, Summer knew she was destined to be a star, and that knowledge powered her career trajectory from Boston to New York to Europe, returning stateside only after she helped change the shape of modern music. But fame isn’t depicted as a reward as much as a cross to bear. And all the while, as the film suggests, she struggled with questions of personal identity to the extent that she was often most comfortable imagining herself in theatrical roles, on and offstage. 

Though the chronology is sometimes rocky and some of the performance clips are long enough (or hypnotic enough?) to distract from the narrative, the directors create a touching, thought-provoking, and overwhelmingly human portrait of a fascinating artist. 107 min.