Grammy Winning artist Donna Summer was dubbed “Queen of Disco” throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s as Summer brought a new era of popular music and once in a generation charisma to a world stage. Her chart topping hits are many, and millions of fans have timeless memories made to her countless hits, including: Love To Love You Baby, Bad Girls, On The Radio, This Time I Know It’s For Real, Last Dance, Hot Stuff, MacArthur Park and She Works Hard For The Money.
Donna Summer’s extensive music catalog is a phenomenon. It’ also a cultural soundtrack that transcends time; infused with emotion, light and love. Her passing in 2012 from lung cancer was devasting to a generation who came of age right along with her.
Now Summer’s daughter, actress and filmmaker Brooklyn Sudano, teamed up with Academy Award winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and HBO to bring the world a deep and poignant documentary about the singer’s musical career and her life away from the cameras, titled, Love To Love You, Donna Summer, now streaming on MAX (formerly HBOMAX).
I had a chance to sit down with Brooklyn Sudano to discuss her mother, Donna Summer. Sudano and co-director, Roger Ross Williams do a brilliant job throughout the film of portraying who Donna Summer was as an artist, and mother, wife and human being. Throughout the film and in this interview, audiences catch a glimpse of a woman many loved, but few truly knew. This is the complex and storied life, and iconic music career of Donna Summer that continues to live on.
Allison Kugel: What was your intention in creating this documentary about your mom?
Brooklyn Sudano: I became a mom, and I didn’t have my mom, and so it brought up a lot of feelings and questions. I was a working mother, and so I thought, “I wonder what she would have done in this situation?” or “what did she do?” And I couldn’t ask her. Also, people and fans would come up to me and they would share their personal stories and their own memories with my mother or a particular song or album. I felt there was so much that people didn’t really know about her or fully understand. Even for the fans who loved her so deeply, I felt maybe they needed their own sense of closure to her life and her story.
Allison Kugel: The title of the film, Love to Love You: Donna Summer, is based on her breakout song, Love to Love You Baby, which really launched her as an artist. I had never heard the original cut of that song until I watched this film. I’ve heard the radio edit of the song and then I watched the documentary and thought, “Ooooh, okay.” It’s very sexual.
Brooklyn Sudano: I’ll say… provocative (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Very Provocative. As her daughter, how does that hit?
Brooklyn Sudano: I think it depends at what age you asked me that question. When I first discovered that song in the film, there was that moment of me going to my younger sister Amanda and saying, “Oh my gosh, do I have a crazy song for you!” We would go to my mom’s shows when we were younger, and she didn’t perform that song on stage anymore. So, it was really a whole revelation in terms of who she was to us in our own minds at that point. I think as we have gotten older, I think we understand the door that it opened for her, and she understood that this was going to be her entrée onto the world stage, and so she owned it. I think in so many ways it was very empowering to so many people to see and witness a woman, particularly a Black woman, be on stage and just own her own power. It was groundbreaking for the time. In terms of using that song as the title, obviously there is that Love To Love You [song] connection, but we also wanted it to feel like a love letter in a sense; Love to Love You: Donna Summer.
Allison Kugel: The video clip of your mother singing, If There is Music There, later on in her career, I cried like a baby watching that. Your mother, Donna Summer, is one of the few singers who really embodied the character and the story of the song she was singing. She didn’t just sing the song. She became the song.
Brooklyn Sudano: That is a perfect way to put it. She became the songs. I think that was really what set her apart. That’s why her music transcends decades and generations; it’s because of that very fact. I think that was one of her real gifts, was to really take each song individually and come from that emotional place to connect with her audiences. I think that is why her music transcends.
Allison Kugel: What did you learn from your mother that you now use as a mother to your own children?
Brooklyn Sudano: One of the biggest things is to obviously give warmth and love, but also she very much included us in her creativity and in her art. I try to do that with my kids. They are their own little artists, actors, and singers. I encourage that, and make them a part of my process. My mom would take my sisters and I on the road with her and we would work backstage. We had a real understanding of behind the camera, in front of the camera, on stage and backstage.
Allison Kugel: We all have that moment when we realize our mom has a first name other than “Mommy.” I would imagine that for you or somebody in your shoes, you have this moment when you realize your mom has a name and that she’s a person. And then I’m sure you had another moment when you realized she was Donna Summer and everybody in the world knew who she was. What was your first awakening to that fact?
Brooklyn Sudano: I think it was just the understanding that there were always people around us or coming up to us. I remember that from a very young age people we didn’t know would come up and love on us and share their stories and know who my mother was. I didn’t know a time when that didn’t exist.
Allison Kugel: Did you just think, “My mom is really popular. She has so many friends.”? (Laughs)
Brooklyn Sudano: (Laughs) Maybe that moment of realization came when I was about seven or eight years old. We went to go see Michael Jackson at Wembley Stadium, and it was that moment she got to take us backstage to meet him. At that time, he was at the pinnacle of his career. It was a sudden understating of, like, “Oh, my mom can do this!” I think it might have been that moment where it really hit home and I thought, “Wow, she has a lot of access. People treat her a little differently.” I got to dance on stage with Michael Jackson in the pouring rain at Wembley Stadium and Sheryl Crow was back up for him at the time. It was one of the most memorable, remarkable moments of my life, of feeling all of that positive joyful energy coming across. So yeah, that was pretty cool.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about your parent’s love story.
Brooklyn Sudano: As my dad says in the film, “From the moment we met, we basically were together.” I think that both of my parents are artists by nature. They saw in each other that need to create, and they connected on that level. They also had this very deep bond. My parents were married for thirty-two years when my mom passed away, and when they first got together, no one thought they would last.
Allison Kugel: Why did nobody think they would last?
Brooklyn Sudano: It was a few things. They both had strong personalities. They both were extremely driven. It was also an interracial relationship [in the ‘70s]. Also, the relationship had so much visibility. I think there was that dynamic where people thought that under the pressure, it was not going to last. The things that bonded them together were that they both had a very strong sense of faith and God and in family. They both loved to create, and they did that well with each other. They were very symbiotic in the way they wrote songs together, and they had a very deep love that translated through all the trials and tribulations they came across.
Allison Kugel: In the documentary, when your mom was diagnosed with lung cancer, she was not a complainer. She did not want her illness to take center stage and she didn’t even really want it to be a thing. She didn’t want to address the elephant in the room. That is kind of how it was portrayed. On the day-to-day, at home with family, what was the process she went through in dealing with her diagnosis?
Brooklyn Sudano: My mother was extremely strong as a person. I think her decision not to share [her diagnosis] with the world was that she was a woman of faith, and she really believed that God was going to heal her. She wanted to put all the positive energy out there for that and only wanted people around her that would give her that energy. When you are in the public eye you end of carrying a lot of people’s emotions for them. She didn’t think she could carry other people’s fear about her illness or their expectations of what it would look like. She just really wanted the time to focus on herself and her family. I think she tried to just walk that out. I was kind of right in the middle of it with her, my dad, and my aunt, and trying to be there day to day. I had her eat healthy and do all the things for her to have those moments where she could feel the best she could under those circumstances, and she was a trooper; one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. Even the doctor said, “Any other person would be in the hospital now.” My mom never ended up in the hospital. She just had a strength and a will that was beyond anybody that I’ve ever experienced before and she passed at home in Naples, Florida.
Allison Kugel: Was there a moment where she thought, “Okay, this is happening, this is it, it’s my time.”?
Brooklyn Sudano: She never verbalized that. I think there was a moment where I could see her wrestling with it internally, but we didn’t talk about it. She fought until the end.
Allison Kugel: She also had a precedent setting lawsuit where she sued her original label, Casablanca Records for her publishing rights before moving to Geffen Records.
Brooklyn Sudano: I don’t think it was about the publishing, specifically. I think it was more a contractual obligation, than the publishing. We thought about unpacking that whole thing within the film and it was just very weedy in terms of the legalese of it all. She just wanted to be out of her contract, and I think there were some changes at the label. She sued to get out of it and to be able to move forward in the way she thought she wanted her career to move forward. It was at the peak of her career, so it was a really big risk for her to take. Neil Bogart, and the whole team at Casablanca [Records], at that time where really like family to her. It was a really difficult time for her because she was so close to them. Thankfully, we have all mended bridges and she was able to mend bridges with them as well. We are on great terms with them at this point. I will say that my mom had a lot of forgiveness and a lot of love for people involved in her life.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think she described the music business as “being raped over and over again?”
Brooklyn Sudano: I think when you are an artist, you are naturally sensitive. You’re in tune with the world in a way that maybe not everybody is. I think that is what makes you aware and able to articulate things in a way that maybe most people don’t. The music business is a business. It can be cutthroat and be about money and power, and all the things that drive an industry. A lot of times it is at odds with the sensitivity of an artist and their need to grow. I think that was one of the biggest challenges during her time at Casablanca [Records]. It was that she wanted to be an artist in a different way than they wanted her to be. She wanted to grow and write more of her music, which she did, and be a little more in control of her own destiny. I think that is what she was articulating.
Alison Kugel: There was another controversy that happened during her life. She became very passionate about giving her life over to Christ, she became a born-again Christian, and she made a comment about God making Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve.
Brooklyn Sudano: My mom did a lot of schtick on stage and it was part of an off-hand comment that was intended to be funny and it was not received that way.
Allison Kugel: Okay. It was a bad attempt at a joke and wasn’t meant to be taken as her literal belief system…
Brooklyn Sudano: No, and I think part of the reason why we talk a little bit about it in the film was that my parents didn’t address it [at the time], because the intent was not meant to be hurtful, but obviously many people were hurt by it. We wanted to acknowledge that, but the way that it snowballed and all the things that people said about her and how she felt about the LGBTQ+ community was the complete antithesis of who she was. I think that was where a lot of her internal conflict happened. My lived experience was not that controversy. We had so many people from that community as part of our daily lives and such a big part of her fanbase. So, I always experienced it as a lovefest and joy, and so it was tricky going back to that. I think as a family we wanted to acknowledge that it hurt people, but that was not who she was. We hope with the film as a whole, that it is about acknowledging and healing. That is why we thought it was important to include it. I also think times where changing and it all kind of got lumped together. People started talking and the rumor mill happened. She was kind of caught in a changing time about what you could say and what you couldn’t.
Allison Kugel: I wonder how she would feel about the cancel culture of today…
Brooklyn Sudano: It was a little bit of that. It is a little bit of what we are experiencing present day in terms of cancel culture, and I think she felt the brunt of that. She was always spiritual, but then as a Christian, it was assumed that she must mean this or that when she said that. It got to be a whole mess. It was really unfortunate, because she was somebody who lived her life with love, hands down.
Allison Kugel: That came through in the film, one hundred percent.
Brooklyn Sudano: That is what she wanted to project. Every single person I talked to for this [film], and I talked to many people from all parts of her life, had nothing but love. Even if they had a complicated relationship with her, they loved my mother deeply and felt deeply loved by her. That was who she was, and the hardest part of that situation was that people would question her integrity in that way.
Allison Kugel: And you co-directed this film with Roger Ross Williams, who is an Academy Award Winning Director. Was it you who approached him?
Brooklyn Sudano: I came to the conclusion after a period of time that I wanted to direct this film, but I also hadn’t [directed] before. I had been an actress for many years, but this was my first feature and my first documentary. I had been a fan of Roger’s work. I got a sense that he understood family and he understood emotion, and how to tell that story with a lot of honesty. I knew his work, and I had met one of his long-time producers in the process. She came on board as our producer and connected Roger and me. When we sat down for lunch and discussed whether this was something we could do together, his vision and my vision were the same. He was probably a little reluctant, thinking, “This is the daughter of. Is she going to want to do some kind of sanitized sugarcoated version of her mother.” I didn’t. I really wanted to tell the truth and for that honesty to come through, and he knew how to tell those kinds of stories.
Allison Kugel: Before your mother met your father (music producer and songwriter, Bruce Sudano), she had been in a relationship where she was the victim of domestic abuse, which never made it into the news at the time.
Brooklyn Sudano: No, I don’t think anyone in the public would have known. My mother was a very private person. She was very open in many ways in sharing her [musical] gift and being very grounded and down to earth with people and gracious, but she was an extremely private person. I think it was important for us to share that part of her story, because it’s a part of what made her human. Those trials and tribulations she had to overcome just show you how amazing it was that she was able to achieve this pinnacle of success and survive it all. Hopefully it was a message to many other women that you don’t have to stay in that situation; that you can move on from it and have a successful life and a successful future relationship.
Allison Kugel: Do you have any rituals for when you feel your mom’s presence or when you really miss her? Is there anything in particular that makes you feel closer to her?
Brooklyn Sudano: It’s not necessarily a ritual, but more of an acknowledgement like, “Hi, mom.” I really feel almost now more than ever that wherever she is, it’s not far. She is right here (gesturing towards her shoulder) with me. I live my life and operate in a way where I acknowledge that she is that close to me. There were many moments during this filmmaking process, and over the years, where something will happen and I say, “Okay. Here she is.” Roger and I would make a joke that she was the one directing this documentary (laugh). There were so many divine little moments and things that would happen to let us know that she was happy with what was happening.
Allison Kugel: Were there signs you would get from her?
Brooklyn Sudano: Obviously, her music follows me everywhere. I would show up somewhere and there was a song playing. I would think, “Okay, I know I’m supposed to be here in this particular moment.” She passed away on May 17th. We had been working on this film for so many years and when HBO gave us our air date and our air week, it was the same week as her passing. Another sign was when my hairstylist on the day of the premiere for the film started singing, “Someone to watch over me…” I asked her why she was singing that song, and she said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know why I have that song in my head.” I said, “My mom would perform that song on stage as one of her standards that she would sing, and that was part of her set for many, many years.” It was a little wink from her, like, “Hi. I’m right here with you. I see you.”
Allison Kugel: What do you feel you have mastered in your life at this point, and what remains a work in progress for you?
Brooklyn Sudano: I think that life is a journey. When I was younger, I would be looking more for destinations. Now I’m much more content in my journey and knowing there is an ebb and a flow, and peaks and valleys, and they are all valid and useful to our growth.
Allison Kugel: And what remains a stumbling block for you?
Brooklyn Sudano: I used to be someone that struggled with depression and anxiety. I feel like I have to be much more okay with the unknown. I think, for me, it is about bringing my faith to the next level and accepting that I many not know what is going to happen two or three months from now. We are in the middle of a writer’s strike and I’m an actor. That’s another unknown that brings up a lot of stuff if I don’t really try to stay grounded and take it one day at a time. I have to catch myself and go back to the basics, and remind myself to focus on what is right in front of me, knowing there will be enough light to take the next step when I get there.
Allison Kugel: What do you think your mom, Donna Summer, mastered during her lifetime, and what continued to be a work in progress for her throughout her life?
Brooklyn Sudano: She mastered her gift (referring to her mother’s voice and musical talent). She understood that her gift, her voice, her creativity and her artistry was a gift from God. She knew that very early on, that it was something that came with a responsibility and she took that very seriously. I think that is why her voice continued to get stronger over the years. She mastered how to use her gift to reach people. I think that is one of the things that made her a genius in her own way. One of the things she was still working on was having to receive love without having to give; to just sit and receive. During her illness and that period of time, that was something that she really had to just release. She had to just sit and understand that just being her was enough. That was a big part of her journey in her last year.
Love To Love You, Donna Summer is now streaming on HBOMAX. Follow Brooklyn Sudano @brooklynsudano.
Images Courtesy of Warner Bros./HBO and Brooklyn Sudano
Listen to or watch the extended interview on the Allison Interviews Podcast and on YouTube.