GLORIA GAYNOR: I WILL SURVIVE @ NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL
Documentaries about an individual, much like biopics, need to function like an essay from a Freshman Comp English class–both need a thesis, a claim that the director is making about the subject.
For example, look at Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. If the whole story had been “he was born, he made lousy movies, he died,” there would be no reason to see that movie–one could learn all that reading Wikipedia. Instead, Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski’s screenplay about the late director gives us a thesis: yes, his movies were awful, yes, Plan 9 is the hottest of hot messes, but Ed Wood was a decent guy because he did right by his friends and company and probably saved Bela Lugosi’s life. (Even if Bela still died while shooting, only to be replaced by Ed’s girlfriend’s doctor, but with a cape draped across his face, as he only resembled Lugosi from the nose up.) That is an interesting story, and a watchable movie.
Betsy Schechter’s Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive begins in perhaps the only way it can begin, with footage of Gloria Gaynor singing her signature song, “I Will Survive,” followed by a cut to Gaynor saying “Yes, I have survived.” We can take that as the core of a thesis statement; if that’s the thesis, we’re about to see how and why she has survived, and what that survival has looked like. That’s exactly what we are given.
We begin in 2015 in Franklin, Tennessee, a wealthy bedroom community of Nashville, where Gaynor is starting work on a solo gospel album. We first meet Gloria while she is busying herself with setting up the studio. We meet Chris Stevens– a former disco musician like Ms. Gaynor– who will be producing her album. We also meet Stephanie Gold, whom we learn is Gaynor’s manager, but who often seems like little more than Gaynor’s bickering spouse, given how often the two squabble about everything they encounter (perhaps amped up because they know they’re being filmed?)
Gold recounts that she signed Gaynor at a low point, when she was singing to the accompaniment of a CD player. That recollection takes us to what will be the second of two narrative tracks in the film–track one being the recording of the new album, track two being, as expected, The Life Of Gloria Gaynor. That’s the structure of the film, in a nutshell–there’s a big chunk of Making The Album, a big chunk of Gloria’s Life. Album, Life, Album, Life–about which I have very specific thoughts, but more on that later.
On the “Gloria’s Life” track, we learn that Gaynor was born in Newark, NJ. Her father was never there and her mother was “the neighborhood mom” who loved to sing but had lost her ability to hit certain high notes, which is when mom would ask Gloria to pinch-hit (or pitch-hit, badum-tss!). In 1968, she joins her first band, The Soul Satisfiers, then jumps ship soon after for a band called City Life, starting an era Gaynor describes as “personal freedom for me” and “an exchange of love I wasn’t getting anywhere else.” This is a sentiment that I’ve heard before–virtually every performer whose bio I have read or watched has said similar words about their time on the boards.
The Sixties become the Seventies, and the Seventies, per Gaynor, “were hard for everybody,” with everybody here literally meaning everybody in the world, and escapism was sought. A lot of folks found that escapism in a new, hybrid music coming from gay/black/Latino dance clubs called disco. The band City Life didn’t start outplaying disco, although they’re playing the clubs.
When signed to CBS Records, the largest label in the world (until its drunk, insane president sold it to Sony), then-president Clive Davis has a song called “Honeybee” written for Gaynor. Doesn’t ring a bell? Kind of the point.
One day in the studio, Gaynor’s band is playing a Motown staple called “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and the guitarist reworks his part with a disco flavor. Gaynor and company agree that it cooks, and so does America. Once it’s released it’s the first disco record to play regularly on AM radio (which still played music in the Land of Ago) and is the first single released by any label to be aimed directly at the disco market. (Researching this review, I learned that one of the producers on this slapper was Meco, who would have another disco hit, a song that sent five-year-old yours truly into spasms of joy.) At a celebration for “Goodbye” and its success, Gaynor is given a bouquet and a crown and called “The Queen of Disco.”
Meanwhile, back in the present, Gloria is working on her album, and we see extended footage of the singer and various session musicians (none of whom can believe they’re working with her) recording and playing together. Because Gaynor is insisting on old-school analog tape recording, the musicians have to play together. We learn that this style brings out more from each individual musician. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean much to modern record labels, meaning Stevens is contacting labels daily in search of a distributor. He’s also getting rejected daily, despite having the Queen (Emeritus) of Disco to offer them. Her Majesty is not wholly surprised, saying of the music biz, “there has to be…a place…your music can go.” Apparently labels can’t find/be bothered to find a place for gospel from a disco singer.
Back in the “Gloria’s Life” track, it’s 1975, and the name City Life is dropped, as it is now Gloria Gaynor who’s putting disco butts in disco seats, even filling Madison Square Garden. “But that girl,” she tells us, “was lonely.” To the act are added backup singers called The Simon Sisters, and they bring their brother Lynwood, who eventually becomes Gloria’s husband and manager.
She’s on a roll now, and if you find yourself saying you’ve seen this narrative arc before, yeah, you have. Her downward trajectory begins with a literal downward trajectory, when she falls over an amplifier during a show at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 1978. She gets up, finishes the show, goes home and goes to bed…and cannot walk when she gets up the next morning. She spends most of the next year in a wheelchair.
It’s during that year that her current producer, brought over from Europe, wants her to cover a song called Substitute, which the producer had made into a hit in Europe for a band called Clout. Gaynor is wholly uninterested in Substitute, which is when she notices the lyrics for the song that, I swear upon the grave of Casey Kasem, was intended for the B-side. The lyrics begin, “First I was afraid, I was petrified…”, and you know the rest–yes, the B-side was intended to be “I Will Survive. Gloria pushes for A-side status and gets it. She takes a pressing of it to Studio 54, it’s eaten up (or snorted, this being 54). It’s requested on NYC radio stations; when all is said and done, the well-nigh B-side is The Number One Song In America and the only disco song ever to win a Grammy.
So, it probably looked like we were about to hit the downward part, when “I Will Survive” happened, right? Well, that was only a massive stay of execution. IWS, you see, was released in 1979, the same year as the beginning of the disco backlash, and events like Chicago’s Disco Demolition Night. Gaynor rises to the top of popular culture, only to
–sink right back to the bottom
–leave the US for Europe, where she’s still popular
–but also because Lynwood won’t stop scheduling gigs for her
–find herself snorting cocaine with Lynwood in an attempt to gain enough energy to keep performing (and not notice the groupies partying with Lynwood) when she hears, she says, a voice saying “THAT’S ENOUGH!”, whereupon she stops immediately and does not again partake of Uncle Sigmund’s Peruvian Cocoa Powder, nor anything else. It’s at this juncture that we get a quote from Gaynor’s pastor, who opines that “her story helps people know why she survived, and why…is her faith.”
She’s going to need her faith. When we return to the album, it’s 2018; three years on, the album is still in production and still no distributor. Disheartened, she leaves Franklin; where she goes is an elementary school in Seville, Spain. Why? Simple: the building was in need of critical repairs, and to raise the money for said repairs, the students recorded a cover of (WAIIIIIT FORRR IT!) I Will Survive, perhaps inspired by the French World Cup team who made the song theirs when they stole the cup from England–er, won in 1998. Clearly the song has taken on a life of its own, especially among those who wish to assert that they, well, will survive. The visit inspires Gaynor to continue with the album.
What also keeps her going (we’re still on the album track here) is when she joins forces with Bart Millard, late of the Christian contemporary powerhouse Mercy Me; I can only imagine you’ve heard at least one song of theirs even if you don’t do CCM. Bart co-writes a song with Gaynor, who performs it with Jason Crabb, also a name in CCM, as is Yolanda Adams, who also joins the album, and lo, there is a distributor.
But first, Gaynor has to take some personal time. By “personal time”, I mean she has lost the ability to walk again, and a spine surgeon has to literally break her back to fix it. Cut to six months later–in retrospect, a short time to recover from one’s back being purposely broken–and it worked. And the album is finished, and wins a Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album. Gloria Gaynor has again survived.
Now, earlier, I said that I had thoughts about the structure, and about the story itself–the story of a singer whose prime was in an earlier era, overcoming her personal demons, trying to record a new album, said album being a triumph and winning a Grammy. If that sounds familiar, it should, because I literally saw that film last year at Nashville Film Festival, only that year, it was about Tanya Tucker. That’s not to say for a moment that I’m accusing Betsy Schechter of stealing anything; I’m not. Rather hard to tell one person’s life story and steal from another’s.
What has happened here is that Schechter’s film, and the Tucker doc before it, both tell the story they tell, the story that exists to be told. Yet maybe they combine to tell a bigger story, to make a bigger claim, something about the way we handle artists (perhaps especially so when the artists are female) whom we’ve loved, when time has kept moving. Schechter really has latched onto a story bigger than Gaynor herself, who isn’t a small story. It’s a story that should survive in our minds and hearts.