From a filmmaker’s perspective, it’s always fortuitous when the name of an artist’s signature work encapsulates the journey that they made in their life and career. What else to call a film about Johnny Cash? “Walk the Line,” of course. A Tina Turner biopic? “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Aretha Franklin? “Respect,” of course. There’s a reason the forthcoming Bon Jovi docuseries is called “Thank You, Goodnight,” and not “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
A portrait of the disco luminary but not a biopic, “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” follows in this estimable tradition. But Betsy Schechter’s documentary — which will get a one-night theatrical release in roughly 800 theaters on Feb. 13 following a healthy festival run — also showcases why that serendipity can come at a greater price to the artist than their film’s marketing prospects: Examining the looming shadow of the singer’s 1970s heyday as she embarks upon a new career as a gospel artist, Schechter chronicles the adversity — professional, romantic, even physical — that transformed Gaynor’s chart-topping dance tune into an anthem for female empowerment, the gay community and most of all Gaynor herself.
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The film opens as Gaynor, now 40 years into her career, decides to record her first gospel album. Between 1975 and 2013, she won a Grammy for “I Will Survive,” released 19 secular albums and embarked on a grueling, decades-long tour schedule, mostly across Europe. She did the latter at the behest of her ex-husband Linwood Simon, whose will she bent to as a result of adolescent sexual abuse and abandonment issues that were baked into her, some even before she was born.
Though Gaynor divorced Simon years before the beginning of the film and is now coupled in a charmingly combative relationship with her manager Stephanie Gold, it’s easy to see the vestiges of that trauma in her anxiety over the world’s perceived indifference to this new musical expression. (That said, an early clip of her current singing suggests she could easily find a new niche as a Sharon Jones-style belter.) She additionally reveals details about the spinal injury that plagued her since the late 1970s without relief, and unpacks the formative experiences that led her to stay with her manipulative, unrepentant philanderer of a spouse.
As dramatic as many of these events naturally are, the majority of the film’s runtime is devoted to her gospel pursuits, no doubt a result of the wealth of footage Schechter captured during the five-year process of recording her Grammy-winning 2019 album “Testimony.” It’s clear that Schechter means the film to serve as a cathartic resurrection for this fallen diva, but the filmmaker employs a perspective that’s almost too narrow to communicate the significance of her work and her legacy. While everyone on earth has heard “I Will Survive,” there’s a slightly disappointing absence of music industry experts, record-label executives or other pundits to contextualize what made her special among the disco queens of the era. Instead, we’re treated to Gaynor’s account of events and a handful of personal testimonies (mostly about how great she was) and little else.
Among the reasons this may leave some viewers disappointed is that notwithstanding her ubiquitous hit, it’s fairly self-evident that (and why) she was great; “I Will Survive” was a hit disco song anchored by a clean, strong, singular voice at a time when overdubs and studio trickery got a lot of singles to the finish line, and she maintained that power and emotion in all of her music. Perhaps that’s also why so much of the film is about the ups and downs of her purported comeback, where there’s more drama to mine as she seeks collaborators who can give her gospel record a commercial bump and the imprint of legitimacy within the genre.
But even a cursory glance at her vast body of work suggests there was much more here to explore. Her first album, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” was historic for its arrangement of a full-side disco mix by Tom Moulton, founder of the twelve-inch vinyl single. She enjoyed early collaborations with members of Motown Records’ studios band, the Funk Brothers. She recorded the main theme to the horror disco film “Nocturna.” And outside of its eventual induction into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, there isn’t quite enough attention given to the reach of her music, which has been used in hundreds of movies and TV shows, inspired dozens of covers and copycats (remember Cake’s alt-rock version?), and become emblematic of the disco genre as a whole.
That said, there are more than a handful of powerful moments in the film to reinforce the triumph of the documentary’s title, such as a public tribute to her by the students, faculty and community at a primary school in Valencia, Spain that provides a much-needed lift just when she’s feeling particularly hopeless about her future. Moreover, Gaynor’s personal transformation (culminating in corrective back surgery, an honorary college degree at age 72 and a second Grammy win 40 years into her career) offers a welcome counterpoint to many of the artists from her era whose careers, or lives, came to an end before the music community and the world gave them their flowers.
In what has become an increasingly crowded landscape of behind-the-scenes, true-story documentaries, the appeal of “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” may largely be limited to longtime fans of her music. Even so, it takes the song with which she’s synonymous and highlights one of its most important lessons, one it took Gaynor most of her life to learn: When you decide to save all your lovin’ for someone who’s lovin’ you, make sure you start with yourself.
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