Long Live Summer…

17 May

R.I.P.:  Donna Summer (1948-2012)

Donna Summer on the cover of her 1977 lp, Once Upon a Time.

Donna Summer had reinvented herself a few times before she struck gold as the singer of such dance floor hits as “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love.”  She was hardly ever a real movie star though she was the  “draw” in a film that would not be remembered today were it not for her engaging vocals on the Oscar winning track, “Last Dance”–from 1978’s Thank God It’s Friday, a movie that celebrated the short-lived disco culture, and is often overshadowed by a bigger movie from the same era. How’s that?

Backstory: in 1977, the musical powerhouse known as the Bee Gees (the Brothers Gibb: Barry, Maurice and Robin) collaborated with producer Robert Stigwood on the soundtrack for the disco-inspired Saturday Night Fever. The film starred John Travolta in an Oscar nominated performance as a young man from Brooklyn who cuts through all the b.s. in his life and finds escape on the dance floor of a local disco.  The Christmas of ’77 release was a smash hit and made Travolta, then best known for his work on the TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, a bona fide movie star. The movie also took disco music to new levels of popularity. No, the Bee Gees didn’t invent disco music, hardly, but they liberated it by giving it a pop-spin and making it attractive–and oh-so-saleable-to mass audiences. Simply, disco music was no longer just for discos.

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack produced what seemed like an unending parade of hit singles, starting with the inescapable “Stayin’ Alive,” and on through the likes of “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “More than a Woman,” and “If I Can’t Have You” (the latter recorded by Yvonne Elliman).  For whatever reason, the music branch of the Academy was not the least bit impressed, and the Bee Gees and their batch of mega-sellers were completely overlooked during the 1977/78 Oscars. (The same music branch, btw, also snubbed the now anthemic “New York, New York” from the revisionist Martin Scorsese musical of the same name, starring Liza Minnelli and Robert de Niro, but I digress.) The Oscar for Best Song that year went to the even more overwhelmingly popular title tune from You Light Up My Life, an inspirational bit of treacle that turned Debby Boone from “daughter of crooner Pat Boone” into a star in her own right.  Without the heat that the Bee Gees could have provided, the outcome for the Best Song Oscar seemed inevitable. Of course, Boone’s song (written by one-time commercial jingle guy-turned media mogul, Joseph Brooks) was the clear winner in a race that included “Nobody Does It Better” (from the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me), “Candle on the Water” (from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon), “Someone’s Waiting for You” (from Disney’s The Rescuers), and “The Slipper and the Rose Waltz” (from The Slipper and the Rose, natch, a non-Disney Cinderella inspired musical starring Richard Chamberlain, of all people, as the Prince.) Anyway, the point is that without the Bee Gees, in addition to  a surplus of songs from family friendly fare and/or kiddie flicks, the music branch of the Academy suddenly looked old, stodgy, and out-of-touch, being soundly criticized as a result. (It does seem odd from this perspective that a bunch of disco songs would have ever seemed cutting edge, but hindsight is a curious thing.)

A year later, when disco was still very much in vogue,  the race for Best Song was a fight to the finish between Summer’s “Last Dance” (composed by Paul Jabara) and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” performed by Olivia Newton John–a new song penned especially for her by  John Farrar (who’d written and produced many of the singer’s top hits) for the big screen version of the long running Broadway musical, Grease. This time, the Academy was unequivocal: “Last Dance” won the trophy, meaning the Academy had, for better or worse, given disco music its official seal of approval. To further sweeten the deal, the Best Original Score trophy went to Midnight Express‘s Girogio Moroder, the composer-producer who helped launch Summer’s career as a disco diva and who had in fact co-produced the “Last Dance” track. His pulsating score for Midnight Express  had plenty of dance floor appeal in spite of the film’s grim subject matter: the fact based story of an American student imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling hashish; the movie was, in fact, a huge hit and a Best Picture contender. (Meanwhile, the other Best Song nominees that year were a pretty average lot: “The Last Time I Felt Like This, from Same Time, Next Year; “Ready to Take a Chance Again, from Foul Play, and “When You’re Loved” from The Magic of Lassie.)

(^ Donna Summer performs the Oscar winning song “Last Dance,” from Thank God It’s Friday, on the 1978/79 Academy Awards telecast.)

Well, I don’t think anyone will ever argue that Thank God It’s Friday is a forgotten masterpiece, and I freely admit that I’ve never seen it in its entirety–just random bits and pieces on TV; however, I’ve always loved Summer’s song, from the first time I heard it, in fact.  It has a real sense of time and place that appeals to me, reminds me of my own youth;  plus, beneath the thump-thump-thump of its disco beat, Summer provides real longing, depth even, which makes it something other than a mindless dance track.  To clarify, the purpose of this piece is not to debate the pros and cons of disco on the music industry. It’s just an appreciation of one song, one Oscar winning song, performed by a woman who’s just passed from this life. On the other hand, I guess because I enjoy the song so much, I’ve always taken exception to the critics who’ve written TGIF off as a rip-off of Saturday Night Fever, mainly because the timing of the two movies makes the charge near impossible.  Saturday Night Fever was released in December of ’77; TGIF was released in May of ’78. With that in mind, there’s really no way that the movie was developed, put through production, and prepped for distribution in a scant five months. No way. So that’s that.  The movie also includes an appearance by The Commodores and then relative unknowns Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger, not to mention Terri Nunn, who would go on to front the band Berlin, which recorded “Take My Breath Away” for 1986’s Top Gun. The song netted yet another Oscar for Giorgio Moroder, who’d won a second statuette for 1983’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling” since first winning for Midnight Express.

As noted, Summer never became a movie star, and as disco’s popularity declined, so did her record sales though she enjoyed one last huge hit with 1983’s “She Works Hard for the Money”; however, her melancholy “On the Radio” was featured on another hit soundtrack: 1980’s Foxes, starring Jodie Foster and directed by Adrian Lyne. Furthermore, her 1979 smash, “Hot Stuff’ was featured in the trailer–and a key sequence–in 1997 Best Picture nominee The Full Monty, a British sleeper about amateur male strippers that took America by storm–and was eventually turned into a popular Broadway musical. Hot stuff, indeed.

(^ The trailer for 1997’s The Full Monty)

Thanks, Donna….

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