Musical legends can seem like untouchable, mythical icons from the outside looking in. But to their closest circle, the family and friends that know them more intimately, they’re much more complex. Such is explored in Love to Love You, Donna Summer, an HBO Original documentary offering an intimate glimpse at the artist’s life on and off stage.
Brooklyn Sudano, one of Summer’s three children, teamed up with Oscar and Emmy-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams to direct the documentary exploring the highs and lows of her mother’s fame, giving fans a deeply personal portrait of the Queen of Disco before her death on May 17, 2012.
“I had just become a mother. I didn’t have my mom. And so I was processing a lot of what that was like, and you know, what that might have been like for her because I was a working mom. So there was that,” Sudano tells ET’s Nischelle Turner when asked what inspired her to grant fans an in-depth look into her mother’s life.
“There were so many fans that would come up to me and share their stories. And I did feel like she was kind of this mythical, mysterious person that people didn’t really know who she fully was — I think they kind of saw this persona and didn’t really understand just how much of an artist she was,” she adds. “And then, I think, as I started to reach out to people and talk to people, I realized that I needed to be part of the directing team because I think they intrinsically trusted me to tell their truth. And I think that’s why we have the film that we ended up with, we wanted a really honest approach.”
Love to Love You features interviews, archival footage, personal audio from the singer’s own mouth and Summer’s infectious music for a new perspective on the life of the vocal powerhouse. The documentary explores the underbelly of the disco era that saw Summer’s — born LaDonna Adrian Gaines — rise to fame. It also delves into her internal battles, including her struggles with depression, addiction and attempted suicide.
Sudano shares how her mother struggled with her fame and how she felt constantly boxed in by people’s projections of her. “She always had a very deep spirituality, and she was grounded in that. I think part of her struggle with fame and all of these things that we tried to walk through in the film, is that she just didn’t like being put in a box,” she muses. “She just didn’t want that Queen of Disco, First Lady of Love to confine her and her artistry. She was always forward-thinking and she would always want to be pushing the ball forward. If anything limited her, that’s where she started to get a little uncomfortable.”
Sudano theorizes that what saved Summer from her suicide attempt and helped her along her healing process was her faith.
“I think what saved her in that moment is the grace of God. I think [it was] God saying, ‘This is not your time,’ because she would have been out that window,” Sudano shares. “And I think when you look at her life, it was rooted in spirituality, not necessarily the church or whatever, but just real deep faith that God had called her. He had called her to great things. And I think that’s really what compelled her through some of the tougher moments of her life was like, ‘No, I know I’m supposed to be here. I know, I’ve been given a gift. And I know I’m supposed to do good things with that.’ So I think that’s what saved her life.”
“Roger and I, we would tag team and we would see as we were doing the interviews, the kind of the direction it was going and really lean on each other to ask the right questions at the right time,” Sudano recalls. “For some of the tougher subjects, I needed to be the one asking the questions, and I think people felt freedom, honestly, and closure and healing for themselves as well, being able to tell their truth, and [share] their relationship with my mother in the way that they saw it.”
That includes Sudano herself, who is featured in the documentary along with her family. The mother of one reflects on the difficulty of exploring her relationship with her mother onscreen, saying that although “it was never really a question if we were going to do that or not,” she knew how tough it would be.
“I was trying to seek the truth as close to it as I could get to really understand the full picture of who she was,” she says. “I feel like somebody’s humanity is really what makes them great at their art, it helps you understand the choices they make, why they say the things they do [and] why they are the way that they are. So for me, it was the foundational pillar of how to tell the story.”
Her mother’s humanity and all the trials and tribulations that made her a multi-faceted person are what Sudano believes allowed her to connect with her audience. “I think it’s what made my mother really great at connecting with her audiences and why she was able to translate those songs and those moments onstage,” she notes. “So intrinsically [and] so deeply because she had lived through these experiences. And so it was really important for the film to reflect that.”
Love to Love You includes interviews with Sudano’s younger sister, Amanda Sudano, of the music duo Johnnyswim, and her half-sister, Natalia “Mimi” Pia Melanie Sommer, from her mother’s first marriage to Helmut Sommer. Sudano shares how her mother was “more settled” in her career when she and Amanda were born, having found “the balance of fame and career and family.”
“Life was just a joy really, for the most part. She included us in her work; we would be on sets, and we would go on tour,” she recalls. “You know, if she was painting, she would set up a canvas and we would be painting alongside her. So, she really allowed us into her creativity. And so, you know, we had a really great, warm, normal upbringing in many senses.”
But Sudano notes that Mimi, having been born alongside her mother’s rise to fame, “had to bear the brunt of a lot of the sacrifices that my mom made to be that person out there.”
She adds, “So, you know, her experience was really different. And for me, that was a really big part of the journey of making this film. And I think for my family and me, that part of it was really a healing process. I think this film really tries to also hone in [and] honors that family was the most instrumental thing — that’s what grounded us. That’s why we’re here today.”
When it comes to her mother’s legacy, Sudano says that despite her dislike for being boxed in, she “realized just what her impact was, and was OK with that.”
She adds that her mother struggled to “break free from some of those confining ideas” but she adored her fans and their devotion to her work. “She was the Beyonc? [and] the Madonna of her time,” she tells ET. “When I go back and I speak to people that were there in the moment, she was everywhere from 1975 to 1980. She was the biggest female star you could have worldwide. I think that the pace and the intensity of that were part of the reason why she probably wanted to jump out that window at the moment.”
Still, Sudano acknowledges how her mother was at the top of her game. “She was on the cover of Rolling Stone. She was on the cover of Ebony, she was the first Black woman who had a music video on MTV. So, she was that person. I don’t think that people always connect those dots. And I’m hoping the film is able to do that.”
“I think her legacy is one of love,” the director concludes. “Her music was something that brought people together. It allowed people to see themselves, it allowed people to come together and be joyous and feel healed. And so it’s a legacy of love, of joy and healing. And I hope that the film is reflective of that because that’s really what she stood for.”
Love to Love You, Donna Summer is now available to stream on Max.