The documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer, about one of the world’s greatest pop stars, constitutes a kind of duet – between two filmmakers. The film, making its world premiere in Berlin, comes from directors Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano, daughter of the subject of the film, the legendary Donna Summer. 

“I was such a huge, massive fan of Donna’s and nothing made me feel the way she made me feel on the dance floor,” Williams, the Oscar-winning director of Music By Prudence, tells Deadine. “I thought, I want to make a music documentary. I did The Apollo — which I guess is a music documentary — but I want to make one about an artist, and it has to be Donna Summer.”

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Sudano, meanwhile, also had been contemplating the idea of making a documentary about her mom, hoping to reveal dimensions of her mother’s talent that have been largely overlooked. 

“I think people know her for songs, but I don’t think they really understand the full body of her work and just how much she contributed to that creatively as a songwriter and as a full-fledged, complex person and artist,” Sudano observes. “I went to my dad after my mom passed and I had my daughter, and I was like, ‘I think I want to do a doc on mom.’ And he was like, ‘Go for it.’”

The film, playing in the Berlin Film Festival’s Berlinale Special Gala section, sheds new light on Summer through an incredible archive of material, including a teenage Donna singing “The Age of Aquarius” in German, as part of a touring production of Hair. In the film, Sudano also interviews her sisters, Amanda and Mimi, and her mom’s siblings and longtime friends and associates about key moments and formative experiences in Summer’s life.

“Almost everyone in the documentary, this is the first time they’ve talked about Donna,” Williams notes. “It was really tough for Brooklyn to convince them to talk because they’ve never spoken to the press.”

“They’ve mentioned things here and there,” Sudano adds, “but never to this level.”

A picture emerges in the documentary of a person divided between a strong religious grounding and a free spirit with a fun-loving and uninhibited side. Donna’s mother wanted her to sing gospel, which she did early on. But Summer was destined to record much more risqué material, especially the sexually frank song that launched her international career, “Love to Love You Baby.”

That 1975 hit inaugurated the disco era, but confined Summer in the mind of record company execs to a narrow lane in the industry. And it didn’t exactly mesh well with her religious upbringing.

“I think when she got famous for what she got famous for [“Love to Love You Baby”] and kind of this sexualized woman and ownership of all of that — she knew that was her vehicle in [to the business], but I don’t think that’s what she thought it was going to be,” Sudano says. “I think there was this dynamic throughout, and I think also it relates, yes, to her faith, but also as someone who considered themselves or was hoping to be respected as an actual artist as opposed to just kind of like this object and vocalist.”

Summer wrote or co-wrote many more of the songs that became her signatures than even fans may realize, including “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights,” and “She Works Hard For the Money.” She co-wrote the hugely-influential 1977 song “I Feel Love” with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

“’I Feel Love’ is the basis for all electronic dance music today,” Sudano comments. “Giorgio, Pete, and my mom created this sound that… changed the course of music, and we wouldn’t have a lot of the music today if that hadn’t happened.”

As Summer’s career grew, she continued to feel conflict about her religious faith and her calling to make popular music. Later in her career, she became a born-again Christian and talked from the concert stage about her Christian identity. Audiences didn’t exactly embrace that. The documentary frankly addresses a huge controversy that threatened to rupture the tight bond between the performer and her fans, many of whom were LGBTQ. It came about after Summer commented at a concert that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Some who felt betrayed by the remarks share their feelings in the documentary.

“I think it was really important to give voice to those that were hurt by that comment and to not shy away from it,” Sudano says. “It was an important thing for us to obviously show sensitivity to [and] awareness about and to really try to bring healing through the conversation.”

Summer herself spent years trying to address the controversy.

“It is very difficult for me to believe this terrible misunderstanding continues,” she said in a statement issued in the 1980s. “Since the very beginning of my career, I have had tremendous support and friendship from many in the gay community. It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic… As a Christian, I have nothing but love for everyone and I recognize it is not my place to judge others.”

The space devoted in the documentary to that uproar distinguished the film from many music docs that serve as hagiographies.

“There’s so many celebrity documentaries nowadays, and a lot of them are very superficial. They’re more like PR vehicles for the celebrities,” Williams says. “Brooklyn and I talked about that from the start. Brooklyn was like, ‘I don’t want that. I want to tell the truth. I want it to be an honest portrait of an artist.’ And the complexity just makes you love her more as an artist.”

Love to Love You, Donna Summer is set to premiere on HBO in May. 

“It is an unexpected film, but I think it gives people something — sometimes it’s not what you expect, but it’s what you need,” Sudano says. “I hope the audience really sees what we were trying to give, that this is how the family, this is how we see her — complex, but fun and loving, super-talented mother, mom, and artist.”

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