(The 2023 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 7-18 and HtN has a ton of coverage coming like Melanie Addington’s Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
We may have lost Tina, but we sure still have Gloria. At almost 80 years old she brought it to a full house at Spring Studios with a five-song performance in lieu of a Q&A after the world premiere of Betsy Schechter’s documentary Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive. The film gives us a peek into the private world of the Grammy award winning musician and disco queen turned gospel singer. While certain aspects of her life have been public including her divorce to long time manager Linwood Simon, her physical injury turned into multiple years of disability, Schechter gets inside Gaynor’s vulnerable human nature and shares parts of her inner world that her band admitted at the after party on Friday at Tribeca that even they didn’t know.
The story has two main threads, first the internal heart of Gaynor: a woman reclaiming her life after a difficult journey that involved sexual abuse as a minor to choosing to remain with someone who didn’t love her and used her out of fear of how to be alone to the dawning realization she was alone already. The second is her public struggle to come back as a gospel singer and get a new album released despite the gatekeepers telling her no.
Much like the documentary explores, Gaynor’s earliest major hit, planned for a release as a B-side, I Will Survive, has become an anthem to anyone who has fought for their survival in this world. And Gaynor explains, when speaking in front of a group of children, that speaking truth to your trauma and helping the person behind you struggling is all we can do to help break the cycle.
It is an equal parts devastating and inspiring film about a Black woman who fought the odds of an industry that is ageist and sexist by taking her second Grammy 40 years after her first but also a woman who was raised with the expectation to trust and love your husband even when they give nothing back to you. Breaking the chains of what society tells her to be happens because of people who love and respect her and make sure to help her get where she always belonged: in the spotlight.
One of those friends, Chris Stevens, chooses to help her get the album made as producer. “She’s finally liberated,” he explains in the documentary. Much like a traditional music documentary, Schechter than explores Gaynor’s early years singing with her mother, her early hits, how one up tempo plan of a song changed everything to make her ultimately tied to disco forever. With 19 albums behind her, a ex-husband/manager that almost destroyed her career by only booking her in Europe with no band for years while he partied,
Another critical person in her life is Stephanie Gold who stepped in first as an assistant and then manager getting Gaynor’s career and health back on track. In 1978 Gaynor fell over a PA and woke up the next day paralyzed. She learned how to walk again. But after multiple surgeries, she has remained slightly bent at the waist and never quite back to herself. But Gold finds a surgeon who helps make a big change.
Her relationship with her faith is also examined as a large part of her journey. Because she found faith in the later years of her marriage and mostly after the divorce, her pivot to gospel was less of a surprise for most around her than it was for record executives. In 2017 as her popularity had waned and everyone rejected her new gospel album, she had to take a hard look at who she was without that, and it took her time and friends to keep fighting for what she knows should be her life. The result was a Grammy in 2020. The result was a new genre, new friends, renewed support, and a back surgery that let her stand straight for the first time in 20 years.
But while Gaynor’s story tells us exactly how to let go and trust that better things are ahead, she reminded the audience that renewal is part of all of us.
“I was here on 9/11 and something good that came out of it was Tribeca. You can thrive and survive,” Gaynor said.
The film honors her legacy, her struggle and most importantly her learning to love herself and gives us a snapshot of 80 years of us all just living in Gloria’s world.
– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; Betsy Schechter; Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive documentary movie review