Hometown queen of disco Donna Summer was born in Dorchester and raised in Mission Hill. She died in 2012, and the five-time Grammy Award winner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later and sold over 140 million records worldwide. Now there's a new documentary on HBO looking at her career called "Love to Love You." GBH arts and culture reporter James Bennett II joined Morning Edition co-host Paris Alston to discuss it. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: Let's get groovy here. I mean, this is a documentary that is co-directed by Summer's daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, so kind of told from her lens. How does that relationship translate to the film here?
James Bennett II: You know, it feels very scrapbook-y in a nice way, because a huge component of what we see as the audience are selections that have been curated from this trove of home videos. Donna Summer loved being an entertainer, but she also loved her own camera. And she extensively, it seems, documented her life with her partner, with her children, with her friends and with her family and her community here in Boston. Like you mentioned at the top, she died in 2012. So there is no spectral voice that's been recreated via A.I. or anything like that.
Alston: At least not yet, right?
Bennett: At least not yet. But right now, we can hear her speak on her own experiences, thanks to excerpts that have been taken out of a recording of her memoir. And she had this bit in the documentary. She was doing a television interview with – I can't remember which host. But she's just talking about just the odds of her career, being this girl growing up in in Mission Hill who moved to New York and became this huge star. It's like million-to-one shot, I think is the phrase that she said. And she seemed to always kind of be in awe of the fact that actually got to happen to her.
Alston: Yeah, I imagine. So how did it happen?
Bennett: So I'll keep it pretty brief. But we've already mentioned: Born in Dorchester, grew up in Mission Hill. The documentary speaks a lot about the racism and the bigotry that she and her siblings and her family faced there, in the project that they lived in. But, you know, she had these musical roots in the church. She said that her parents would put on these gospel records and they would have her try to sing along. And she had this love of Mahalia Jackson. And so she actually grew into her own in a psychedelic band called The Crows and took that band to New York.
But then she decided to try out her musical skills on Broadway, auditioned for a role in "Hair," doesn't get it in the U.S., but she gets to go to Germany and join the cast of "Hair" in Germany singing the musical in German. She becomes fluent in German. She's there for eight years. And while she's there, she meets the legend — like, two legends coming together. She meets Giorgio Moroder, one of those guys who, even if you don't know the name, you definitely know his sound. And together, they pioneered what we would call, I guess, electronic and electronic dance music. In another bit in this documentary, she's talking about "I Feel Love" and how she kind of came up with that groove with Moroder. And she just mentioned, oh, and that changed the pace of music for a while.
Alston: I was just going to say, I mean, it's had a long term impact, right? That song specifically was repurposed by Beyoncé on her "Renaissance" album. She emulates Donna Summer the same way, that really breathy, psychedelic sound. So her music has had a long-lasting impact.
Bennett: And it's interesting, too, because it has this impact for people that may not even realize it. There are the obvious ones too: Think about like Daft Punk, another group that drew a lot of inspiration from Moroder, and then I guess by proxy from what Donna Summer was able to do. But then if you remember La Roux from the late 2000s; Taylor Swift is having her thing right now, even Taylor Swift was trying to get on this electro groove thing. So, yeah, that's really cool to listen to.
Alston: I want to go back a little bit to what you were saying about the home videos. Because we wonder so much about the lives of superstars, right? Especially people who are as magical as Donna Summer. And we want to know things about their personal lives. But rightfully, they keep things from us. But what do we learn from these really intimate and private moments that were captured from this camera?
Bennett: Yeah, it's weird looking at all this stuff. Not weird, but, you know, it's interesting. Because we live in a time now where every celebrity has to kind of be online. And you get to see somebody that, you know, she loves being an entertainer, and she speaks to this a lot. She talks about how music is just one aspect of her artistic expression. But like I mentioned, she loves film. She's joking about becoming a director, looking for some people to join the cast of her film. She's a painter. She drawn into this visual art world. She draws inspiration from religion and the relationships that she forms therein. And she also loves the theater. Remember, "Hair" was her first kind of big moment over in Europe. There's a quote in there where she likened her presence to taking on the persona of a created character.
And the other thing I would to have listeners bear in mind, too, is that just because she really liked being an entertainer, being on stage, you can't really negate how difficult that actually is. One of her daughters, I think it was Mimi, her oldest daughter from a relationship with her first husband in Germany, was just talking about the weariness that she saw in her mother's face when she was spending all this time on the road and not a lot of time with her.
And even when you're looking at her perform, it's such a jarring disconnect, right? She's such an electric voice, and the audience is just grooving, and they're sweating, and they're dancing, and they're spinning and whirling. And Donna Summer — she's not quite stoic about it, and she's animated, but not in the way that you might expect.