Donna Summer's dark days of abuse, suicide attempt explored in film: 'I have a secret life'

 It begins with Donna Summer onstage, moaning through the breathy “Love to Love You Baby” and ends with her wiping tears from her eyes, decades later, during a poignant performance of “If There is Music There.”

The juxtaposition between orgasmic writhing and introspective balladry is indicative of Summer’s oft-contradictory life, explored in “Love to Love You, Donna Summer.”

The HBO documentary, co-directed by Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano and Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (“Music By Prudence”), arrives Saturday as a hopscotching overview of the woman dubbed the First Lady of Love.

But, as Summer says in a voice over, “I have a secret life. What you see is not what I am.”

So dim the lights and glimpse what the film reveals about Summer’s life:

Donna Summer's ascension from club music star in Germany to mainstream breakout in America is explored in her HBO documentary.

Donna Summer had a complicated history: 'She just tried to keep her sanity'

The Summer documentary coincides with the 11-year anniversary of her death from lung cancer at age 63.

Throughout her career, which included pop-disco baubles “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance” and “On the Radio,” Summer was rightfully heralded as a trailblazer. The first artist to use a drum machine on a song (“I Feel Love”). The first Black female performer to have a video on MTV. The topic of a Broadway musical (“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”). And, posthumously, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

But Summer’s history is a complicated one that includes abuse, her struggles to adapt to motherhood, her music – which defined an era as she grappled with its sexual content – and her conflicted relationship with the gay community that revered her.

Along with Brooklyn and her father Bruce Sudano – whom Summer married in 1980 – other family members provide insight, including Brooklyn’s sister Amanda; Summer's daughter Mimi Dohler with first husband Helmuth Sommer; and Summer’s siblings Mary Ellen Bernard, Dara Bernard and Ric Gaines. (Summer, who was born LaDonna Gaines, took an Anglicized version of Sommer’s name as her stage moniker.)

Mary Ellen recalls how Summer “knew fame came with the territory…she just tried to keep her sanity,” while Amanda says Summer tried to shield her daughters from fame.

 “We were never allowed in her room. We would find things (out about her) by reading newspaper articles,” she says.

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder found huge chart success in the 1970s, particularly with her controversial dance hit, "Love to Love You Baby."

Donna Summer almost died by suicide

In a sad, chilling voice over, Summer discusses in an interview her near-death by suicide in 1976. A combination of exhaustion, a broken marriage and disillusionment about the music industry and the fame she tried to duck, caused Summer to “break down” in a Central Park-area hotel in New York.

“I said, ‘I’m getting out of here.’ I put my foot out the window,” she says. But her foot got caught in the curtain and at the same moment she freed herself to step out again, a housekeeper opened the hotel door.

“Another 10 seconds and I would have been gone,” Summer says

Donna Summer suffered abuse from minister, boyfriend

Summer’s brother, Gaines, confirms her allegations that a trusted minister sexually abused Summer as a teenager. The traumatic incident, Summer notes, “is something I have to always incorporate into my reality.”

Gaines has more forceful words for the minister: “He did the Devil’s work better than most.”

It was not the only abuse Summer would endure.

Boyfriend Peter Mühldorfer, an artist Summer met in Germany, was an abusive alcoholic who was jealous of Summer’s fame.

Summer’s manager, Susan Munao, recalls a middle-of-the-night phone call telling her that Mühldorfer had beaten Summer until she was unconscious.

“She was becoming a star and he could not handle it,” Munao says.

 Mühldorfer admits in the film, “I hit her and I never could forgive myself.”

The dark times of Donna Summer's life are also touched on in her HBO documentary.

How Donna Summer angered her gay fans

Following a thriving career that populated dance floors across the country with pulsing hits such as “Hot Stuff,” “McArthur Park” and her iconic pairing with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” Summer returned to her religious roots.

“That little church girl was foundational to who she was,” Bruce Sudano says.

After Summer allegedly made the comments during a concert that “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and inferred that AIDS was “God’s punishment” on gay people, a community that had a kinship with the singer felt betrayed.

One of Summer’s bodyguards remembers angry fans disrupting a show of Summer’s art in Chicago, followed by a stream of concert cancellations.

Summer later denied making the comments, but for many, it was an empty gesture.

Donna Summer didn't want to 'give death power'

Bruce Sudano reflects on Summer's death, how she "carried so much for so long" until her body could no longer endure the lung cancer sapping her strength.

But Summer never talked about dying, Sudano says. "There was a certain amount of non-acceptance ... She didn't want to give death power.'

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 any time day or night, or chat online.

If you or someone you know has been a target of domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 any time day or night, or chat online.

Summer's influence continues:

  • 10 flawless songs: Donna Summer's best, from 'On the Radio' to 'Heaven Knows'
  •  Beyoncé pays homage: How 'Summer Renaissance' nods to Donna Summer
  • More than a disco queen: Broadway music shows the many sides of Donna Summer

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