Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 10th, 2023
Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive (Betsy Schechter, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
By now, 45 years after it took the music world by storm, the 1978 hit “I Will Survive”—the one and only disco song to win a Grammy—has become firmly embedded in global consciousness. We hear those opening lyrics, “At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” and even if we have listened to the tune a gazillion times, it’s hard not to starting swaying in anticipation of the beat that will strike on the upcoming line, “And so you’re back, from outer space.” The message of the words is one of empowerment and resilience, and it takes on even more resonance if you consider that Gloria Gaynor, the singer, was still in a back brace following a nasty fall she had taken during a concert. She was, and is, very much a survivor.
Such information is just one of the many great facts we learn about Gaynor, her life and career in Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, from director Betsy Schechter, making her debut in that role after a few decades producing. And though the documentary is fairly boilerplate in its narrative delivery, it still proves highly engaging, thanks to Gaynor and her fascinating, poignant story. You can’t go wrong with such a subject.
Born in 1943 in Newark, New Jersey, to a mother whose husband had left her during pregnancy, Gaynor grew up relatively happy, if poor, though with a fear of abandonment (thanks, Dad!) that would last a lifetime. She started performing in her twenties and in the 1970s joined the band City Life, before attracting the attention of legendary producer Clive Davis. He may have asked her to record the cheesy “Honey Bee,” but he also gave her her first big hit, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which led to her being crowned “Queen of the Discos,” given that son’s immense popularity in the era’s discotheques. Check it out if you haven’t heard it before. It moves.
Cutting back and forth from the present (starting in 2016) to the past and back again, Schechter walks us through Gaynor’s highs and lows, the latter coming from that back injury and 25 years married to Linwood Simon, who became her manager and worked her hard on European tour after European tour once disco fell out of favor in the United States. The main thrust of the modern footage is how Gaynor strives to move into gospel music, despite the odds stacked against a woman in her seventies pivoting to a new genre. Aided by her post-divorce manager, the devoted Stephanie Gold, she self-funds the recording of what will become (plot spoiler, I know, but these events are now 3 years old, so …) the 2020 Grammy-winner “Testimony.” It’s an inspiring journey.
As is all of it, no matter the familiar format of this kind of nonfiction biopic. My favorite moment of all comes when Gaynor visits a school in Valencia, Spain, which put out their own videotaped version of “I Will Survive”—featuring faculty, staff and students—to honor the struggle to rebuild their decaying structure. They are moved to meet her, and she to meet them, and we are moved by it all. It’s cinema as catharsis in the best possible way.