By Gen Terblanche9 October 2023
The sound of Donna Summer on Showmax
Donna Summer was the crowned queen of disco. Her unique sound set the scene at the world’s most famous nightclub, Studio 54, during the mid-1970s when her collaboration with Italian songwriter, producer and soundtrack composer Giorgio Moroder produced hit after hit after hit. HBO documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer – co-directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano (Donna Summer’s daughter) – tracks her career and private life in home movie footage, and interviews with family and Donna herself.
It reveals the surprising level of intense secrecy that she insisted on, even at home where she didn’t allow her children into her bedroom. It exposes her battles with racism, sexual abuse (both Donna and her daughter Mimi were abused), domestic violence, and the conflicting pulls of family and career. And it reveals how revolutionary her music was, going well beyond the disco craze.
In recorded footage, Donna (who died of lung cancer in 2012) and her collaborators take us inside the creation of some of her greatest disco and soul classics.
But why should we care about some artist from the musty, dusty 1970s? Wasn’t Donna’s heyday nearly 50 years ago now? Delete it, old!
Not so fast. Disco might be dead, but Donna Summer’s music has transcended. She’s still a favourite mood-setter on series and movie soundtracks today.
The Idol: Love to Love You, Baby
Sam Levinson’s (creator of Euphoria) scandalous drama series The Idol centres on a young music artist named Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) breaking through in the corrupt and sexually exploitative LA music scene. In episode 1, Joss’s mentor/exploiter/producer Tedros (Abel Tesfaye) – the creep who tells Joss that she thinks too much, then tries to choke the thoughts out of her – tells her that her track isn’t working because he doesn’t believe her.
And he tells her, “Do you ever listen to Donna Summer? Love to Love You, Baby? When she sings, there’s no doubt that she knows how to f***.” Episode 2 deals with Joss learning to moan in her music video, and ends with her singing a song about dysfunctional families with Tedros and his minions as Donna’s Love to Love You begins to play.
In Love to Love You, Donna Summer, we see the uproar that Donna’s orgasmic moans originally caused on Love To Love You, including a ban from broadcast on the BBC. And insiders discuss how the song led to her own record label dubbing her “The First Lady of Love”. But Donna also reveals how at odds she felt with the sultry image she felt cornered into, stating, “My approach to singing? I approach it as an actress. I don’t approach it as a singer – it’s really acting. I’m not trying to be me.” They’re words that could have come right out of Joss’s mouth.
PS: You can also hear Love To Love You, Baby in Zoolander No. 2 during Hansel’s (Owen Wilson) orgy scene, and in House of Gucci the first time Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia (Lady Gaga) meet. She dances with him so seductively that he gets embarrassed and flees.
Industry: State of Independence
This tense HBO drama series follows a group of young financial graduates backstabbing their way into positions at a top investment bank in London. Season 2, episode 2 ends with Donna’s deeply spiritual track State of Independence (Donna’s 1982 cover of a Jon and Vangelis song) playing. To set the scene, Harper’s (Myha’la Herrold) gamble to strike out on her own without her mentor, Eric (Ken Leung), has just paid off. By breaking the rules, she has defied expectations and landed a massive client who rockets her to the top of the pile. As Donna sings, Harper’s audacity and success earn her a standing ovation from the office.
GQ praised Industry Season 2 for having “the best TV soundtrack of the year”, and composer Nathan Micay and music supervisor Oliver White collaborated with the series’ creators Konrad Kay and Mickey Down to hand-pick the best songs to match their storylines. State of Independence’s optimism and spirituality sets it at odds with the establishment, men’s world of high finance, and it underlines the importance of Harper’s faith in herself as a Black woman.
House of Gucci: I Feel Love
House of Gucci tells the real-life story of how love turned to murder between fashion empire heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and his ambitious first wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Donna Summer is an artist for all seasons for Maurizio and Patrizia. Her songs Bad Girls and Love to Love You, Baby play the first time that they meet and dance together. And when Patrizia is just out having a good time dancing with a friend at a club, Donna’s On the Radio plays.
But the stand-out Donna song is her magnificent track I Feel Love, which plays just after Patrizia’s fortune teller Pina (Salma Hayek) has told her, “You’re strong. You’re magnificent … there’s a great love in your life. Together, you can conquer the world. You will be the queen. You.”
Patrizia and Maurizio then meet with Gucci’s big boss, Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), in New York, where he shows them into their lavish new office. It’s a sweet moment of triumph and for Patrizia, ecstasy.
In Love to Love You, Donna Summer, Donna reveals that with I Feel Love, “When I went into do it, I had the sense that I was floating. And that’s what … we wanted to maintain – that floaty kind of elation that you feel when you’re in love.” The documentary goes in depth into how innovative and influential the song was, and how all its different elements came together in fascinating detail.
PS: Beyonce sampled I Feel Love in Summer Renaissance.
Magic Mike XXL: Hot Stuff
Was there ever a more perfect match than a movie about strippers and one of Donna’s greatest bangers, Hot Stuff? The Magic Mike sequel sees Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, and Joe Manganiello reunite for a pole-to-pole road trip on their way to a stripping contest. One of their first stops is Mad Mary’s where drag queen Tori Snatch (Vicky Vox) is hosting a best amateur drag queen competition. The scene opens with Tori lip syncing to Hot Stuff as the crowd chants “hot, hot, hot, hot”. It’s blink-and-you-miss-it, but the message is clear: if you want to have fun, do it with Donna.
As a song, Hot Stuff sees Donna pushing into rock n roll territory and the track won her the Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy in 1980, the first year the category was added to the ceremony. Get it, Donna.
Big Little Lies: Lucky
This star-powered murder mystery drama series based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty takes us inside a close-knit Malibu community of the super-competitive super-rich, and a group of women who’re guarding a secret behind the veneer of being perfect wives, mothers and career women.
In Season 2, episode 4, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and her mom, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), dance to Donna Summer’s hookup anthem Lucky during a 70s disco party for Renata (Laura Dern) and Gordon’s (Jeffrey Nordling) daughter Amabella (Ivy George), just after Renata finds out that Gordon’s driven the family to bankruptcy. It’s all disco, all drama! Elizabeth is in psychic detective mode and warns Bonnie, “I don’t like the energy in this house.” But Bonnie just wants to let her hair down and dance to Donna. Sometimes it’s not that deep and all you want is a bop!
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