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Review: ‘Love to Love You, Donna Summer’ and three more female-driven films to stream

A woman playing the piano from the documentary "Love to Love You, Donna Summer."
An image of the singer from the documentary “Love to Love You, Donna Summer.”
(HBO / Estate of Donna Summer)
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‘Love to Love You, Donna Summer’

Although the late pop superstar Donna Summer became a household name as a 1970s disco diva, she was never one to chase chart-topping trends. A polymath who dabbled in theater, painting, modeling and movies as well as singing and songwriting, Summer regularly collaborated with talented artists who either helped her realize her own original ideas or made her the center of their own. The result was a string of groundbreaking hits like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Bad Girls” and “She Works Hard for the Money,” which coupled Summer’s phenomenal voice with a personality and vision that helped bring theatricality and sensuality to dance music.

The documentary “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” is co-directed by Roger Ross Williams (best known for the Oscar-nominated “Life, Animated”) and Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano, the latter of whom offers both a wealth of rare archival material and an understanding of what mattered to her mother. Williams and Sudano don’t follow a strict chronological path here; and they don’t solicit testimonials from critics or Summer’s musical peers. Instead they explore — with a bracing frankness — how Summer’s catchy songs and flamboyant performances had a personal dimension few recognized.

Fans of Summer’s music may be disappointed by this approach, which at times prioritizes images of her goofing around in home movies over concert footage. But there is a lot of wonderful music here too, threaded between revealing stories about Summer’s strict religious upbringing, her experience of sexual abuse, and the way her relentless work schedule affected her parenting. Williams and Sudano don’t try to sell their audience on Summer as a musician, because the music itself still does that. This is more a portrait of a passionate artist who kept pushing herself and reinventing herself — sometimes at the expense of those who loved her, at home and on the radio.

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“Love to Love You, Donna Summer.’”TV-MA, for mild violence, adult content and adult language. 1 hour, 47 minutes. Available on Max

A new HBO film sheds light on the private pain and struggles with fame that Donna Summer, he Queen of Disco, dealt with during her career.

May 19, 2023

‘Victim/Suspect’

The title of director Nancy Schwartzman’s true-crime documentary is “Victim/Suspect,” but it could just as easily be “Investigative Reporter.” This riveting and righteously furious film is about two subjects: the worrying phenomenon of police departments discrediting and even arresting sexual assault victims; and the more promising trend of journalists doing their own research into cases that may have been closed too hastily.

The journalist here is Rae de Leon, who works for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s publishing arm Reveal. While digging deeper into an incident of a woman getting arrested due to purported inconsistencies in her statement to the police, de Leon uncovered dozens of similar scenarios around the country, where detectives seemed more intent on grilling the victims than the accused. Neither Schwartzman nor De Leon intend to re-litigate these cases. Their interest is twofold: to question whether the police really investigated thoroughly; and to show what happens to women who are pressured into dropping their charges and then become the subjects of headlines saying, “She admitted she lied.”

Because most of the cops who worked these cases refused to be interviewed either for De Leon’s story or for this film, we’re left with the damning footage of their interrogations — which in some cases lasted hours and included blatant fabrications about the evidence the victims were not allowed to see. Granted, this footage has been carefully selected for maximum outrage-generation. But it still raises some pointed questions about whether the police in these cases were giving their best effort to catch the criminals — or were just spending their time concocting plausible reasons not to.

‘Victim/Suspect.’ R, for some language. 1 hours, 35 minutes. Available on Netflix; also playing theatrically, Bay Theater, Pacific Palisades

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‘The Fire That Took Her’

It’s hard at times to watch Patricia E. Gillespie’s documentary “The Fire That Took Her,” which tells the harrowing and remarkable story of Judy Malinowski, a women who was doused with gasoline and set on fire by her ex-boyfriend, then stayed alive long enough to record testimony used posthumously at his homicide trial. Gillespie doesn’t exploit the images of the crime or its aftermath for shock value, but neither does she shy away from how horrific the fire’s effect was on Malinowski’s body — and on the lives of her mother and children, who spent years coping with huge medical bills and frustrating court trials.

This film is partly about the legal netherworld that some survivors of domestic violence can find themselves in, thwarted by inadequate laws and cowed by embarrassing questions about whatever personal failures may have preceded the abuse. But while “The Fire That Took Her” offers a broader perspective on these kinds of cases, Gillespie always brings everything back to Malinowski and her family, who led full lives before one reckless moment of cruelty changed everything.

‘The Fire That Took Her.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 34 minutes. Available on Paramount+

Also on VOD

“Fanny: The Right to Rock” is director Bobbi Jo Hart’s tuneful documentary about an all-female rock band who inspired fans and impressed peers during their too-short run in the 1970s — an era when the ingrained biases of radio programmers, concert promoters and industry bigwigs worked against women. With exciting archival footage and lively interviews, Hart’s film aims to establish a place in music history for a group too few pop music buffs know. Available on PBS

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