Donna Summer, the “Queen of Disco” of the ’70s, was struggling with abuse and suicidal thoughts as she rose to fame: Doc

Before Beyoncé, there was Donna Summer, an innocent church girl who rose to fame as music’s bad girl and “queen of disco” in the hedonistic era of the ’70s.

But the pop star fought behind closed doors — and at one point considered taking his own life.

“To understand the size and scale of their triumphs, you also have to know the low points,” the late star’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano told Fox News Digital. “You also have to know what we had to work through and overcome to get there and why she chose to do certain things.”

A closeup of Donna Summer on stage

Donna Summer is the subject of a new documentary by her daughter Brooklyn Sudano and Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams. (GAB archive/Redferns)

Summer died of lung cancer in 2012 at the age of 63. It came as a shock to fans and many friends as the singer kept her diagnosis a secret and only told her husband and children. She is now the subject of a new documentary titled Love to Love You, Donna Summer, which premieres Saturday on HBO and HBO Max.

Co-directed by Sudano and Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams, the film features never-before-seen home movies. It also sheds light on rare encounters with many of those who knew and loved the private icon.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Summer was one of seven children who began singing in the church choir. In the 1960s she joined the Munich troupe of the rock musical Hair and moved to Germany. In 1972 she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, a connection that lasted until 1976. Two years before the couple split, Summer released her debut album, Lady of the Night, in Europe. But it was 1975 when the track “Love to Love You Baby” rocketed her to fame. She kept her ex-husband’s name, changing it slightly in her own way.


A Polaroid of Donna Summer smiling against a blurred background

Summer got her singing in a church choir before she found fame in Europe. (Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Summer recorded the breathy love anthem while lying on her back on the studio floor with the lights off, the New York Times reported. According to the outlet, she pictured Marilyn Monroe cooing the lyrics. The 17-minute single contained more than 20 simulated orgasms. She soon released two albums, A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love. With songs like “I Feel Love”, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girl” Summer was promoted as a sex goddess.

A closeup of Donna Summer leaning forward in a floral dress

Summer passed away in 2012. (Harry Langdon/Getty Images)

“I think to portray something like that and own it like she did, it has to be a part of you,” Sudano explained. “So I don’t think that part of it was fake. It was just a part of her, a facet of her skill and charm. I think the struggle was that she was then pigeonholed as a performer…I don’t know, I don’t think she realized how big [things would get]but she understood that there was a door there.

When Summer’s highly erotic tune was played in nightclubs, she often thought about her religious upbringing. Her father reportedly once hit her for wearing red nail polish because “that’s what whores wear.”


A closeup of Donna Summer leaning forward in a white dress and red hat

Summer struggled with private trauma and her public image as a sex goddess. (Harry Langdon/Getty Images)

In the film, Summer is heard saying, “You look at me, but what you see is not what I am. How many roles do I have to play in my own life?”

Privately, Summer carried the pain of having been sexually abused by her pastor as a child. As her fame grew, so did her depression. In 1976, Summer nearly jumped out of her New York hotel room window. Her foot caught in a window curtain. As she approached the ledge, a maid walked in.

“Another 10 seconds and I would have been gone,” Summer later admitted. “I felt like God could never forgive me for letting him down. I’ve been decadent, I’ve been stupid, I’ve been a fool. I just decided my life had no purpose.”

A black and white photo of Donna Summer in a white dress

Summer considered taking her own life before becoming a born-again Christian. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sudano said it was important to address her mother’s trauma in the film, hoping it will encourage others to speak out.

“It was with the pastor for several years,” she said. “Those were things I had heard about my mother as I got older. As we said in the film, there were many mysteries. There were many things we didn’t talk about. But you’re dealing with it.” Trauma, whether you know what trauma is or not. And so it was really important to flesh that out so the audience would understand what she was carrying and what she had to overcome… I thought it was really important to address those things and show our family worked through some of those things… When we’re about it being able to talk might allow someone else to talk about it as well.”


Daughters of Donna Summers and widower Bruce Sudano pose

From left: Donna Summer’s daughters Brooklyn Sudano, Mimi Dohler and Amanda Sudano-Ramirez pose with the late star’s husband Bruce Sudano. (LEONARDO MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)

“The experience was very healing for us,” Sudano continued. “It’s important to talk about these difficult things, things that might not be easy to grapple with. You will never heal if you hide it or sweep it under the rug. Hopefully this film will inspire other families to do things like this.” Discussions.”

Wearing a silver dress, Brooklyn Sudano poses alongside Roger Ross Williams in an all-black ensemble

Brooklyn Sudano and Roger Ross Williams arrive at the premiere of the HBO original documentary “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” at the Edison Ballroom in New York City on Thursday. (LEONARDO MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Summer also had an abusive relationship with artist Peter Mühldorfer, which is explored in the film. A caning resulted in Summer being left unconscious with a black eye and broken ribs.

Sudano and Williams located Mühldorfer, who spoke up in the film.

“I hit her and I could never forgive myself,” he is heard to say.

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A black and white photo of Donna Summer with a microphone

Summer had an abusive relationship with artist Peter Mühldorfer, which is explored in the film. (Getty Images)

Williams told Fox News Digital he was shocked that Mühldorfer was willing to take part in the documentary.

“I was really surprised,” Williams said. “It took a while for him to agree to do the interview and it took a while to find him. But I think he really wanted to get rid of that. And I think Brooklyn gave him permission to do that because she is.” Donna’s daughter. And it was quite an amazing interview. It was pretty enlightening. I’m sure it was pretty emotional for Brooklyn. Even for me.”

“I had talked to my aunts and knew my mother had forgiven him,” Sudano said. “So I felt a certain permission to talk to him and experience that part of this story in a real way. My mother… was someone who was very forgiving. Even when people didn’t deserve it, she was very generous in spirit.” And I believe that through forgiveness there is healing. And through some of those tough talks, there is healing.”

Donna Summer wears a green dress and sings alongside Bruce Sudano

Summer and Bruce Sudano married in 1980. The connection lasted until her death. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As the decadent era of the ’80s dawned, Summer’s focus was on family. She married Bruce Sudano in 1980 and had two daughters. She was already the mother of a daughter from her previous marriage. Summer also became a born again Christian.

Despite her enduring popularity, Summer became the subject of a scandal when she allegedly referred to AIDS as a punishment for being gay. Many of her LGBTQ+ followers boycotted her music, as Summer repeatedly, and at times tearfully, denied making the statement. She later reconciled with gay organizations, the New York Times reported.

“The gay comments were a misunderstanding,” Williams said. “Donna had a lot of gay friends. I remember an interview with one of her close friends who she knew from her time on Hair. I remember him saying that she was going through her religious reawakening, but she also took him to gay bars… Donna loved everyone… I think people see that Glamazón, but… she’s not what you think at all. “

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Arnold Schwarzenegger holds up Donna Summer

Summer is taken from her home by bodybuilder and future movie star and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger in April 1977. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the years that followed, Summer continued to record and perform. She moved to Nashville with her family and also kept a home in Florida.

“We had a really normal but abnormal childhood,” giggled Sudano. “We went to the set and then went to Sophia Loren’s house for dinner. It definitely wasn’t normal, but our experience was also very down to earth…Whenever we went out, people would come up to her and thank her for her music or tell stories from your life with her.

The last dance of the summer was, so to speak, “To Paris with Love” from 2010, her last single.

David Foster plays the piano while Donna Summer sings

Producer/composer David Foster and Summer perform during the ‘David Foster and Friends’ concert at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on October 1, 2011 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“I was a big Donna Summer fan, [but] “I only knew her as ‘Queen of Disco,'” Williams said. “What surprised me the most was that she was so much more than that … She was such a complex artist, and Disco sort of pigeonholed her.” She kept breaking out of that box. She doesn’t necessarily get the recognition she deserves. It was like discovering a whole new artist that I thought I knew.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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