Review: ‘Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive,’ starring Gloria Gaynor

June 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gloria Gaynor in “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive”

“Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive”

Directed by Betsy Schechter

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world from 2015 to 2020, the documentary film “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” features a group of African American and white people, including Gloria Gaynor, commenting on the life and career of Gaynor.

Culture Clash: Gaynor, who transitioned from being a disco icon to a gospel artist, gets candid about surviving sexual abuse, a crippling back injury, an unhappy marriage and ageism.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Gloria Gaynor fans, “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a documentary about longtime artists in the music industry.

An archival photo of Gloria Gaynor in “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” (Photo courtesy of Fathom Events)

“Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” is a traditional documentary that is not exactly groundbreaking, but it is uplifting, and it has the benefit of Gloria Gaynor’s candid participation. Most viewers will learn something interesting about Gaynor from watching this movie. “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, where Gaynor performed a five-song set after the movie was shown.

Directed by Betsy Schechter, “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” (which was filmed from 2015 to 2020) was clearly made by people who are fans of Gaynor. However, the movie isn’t an overly fawning, glossy portrait of the singer, whose main claim to fame is the Grammy-winning 1978 disco anthem “I Will Survive.” Gaynor is open about very painful aspects of her life. She also shows an endearing self-awareness about her fame and legacy in the music business. Her combination of strength and vulnerability are what make this documentary worth watching.

Born as Gloria Fowles in Newark, New Jersey, in 1943, Gaynor admits in the documentary that she’s had lifelong insecurities and abandonment issues because her father Daniel Fowles abandoned her mother Queenie Mae Proctor when Proctor was pregnant with Gloria. Despite coming from a financially disadvantaged broken home, Gaynor (who grew up with five brothers and one sister) says of the childhood that she and her siblings had: “We were very happy. Kids don’t know that they’re poor if they’re loved.”

Gaynor says that she was very close to her mother, who encouraged Gaynor to become a professional singer. Proctor was also a talented singer, but she never got to become a professional singer because of having to work other jobs as the head of a single-parent household. “She was wonderful,” Gaynor says of her mother. “She was my best friend, my confidante.”

When Gaynor was 25 years old, her mother died from health issues. Of course, Gaynor was devastated. In the documentary, Gaynor talks about how she handled her grief: “I threw myself into music, which was an outlet for my pain.” She began to perform in nightclubs in the Newark area.

In the 1960s, Gaynor had very modest success as the lead singer of the jazz/R&B band Soul Satisfiers. In the early 1970s, she became the lead singer of a pop/R&B group called City Life, which essentially disbanded after Clive Davis signed Gaynor to a solo artist deal with Columbia Records. Tony Tarsia and Bill Cireua are two former City Life members who are interviewed in the documentary.

Gaynor’s first single for Columbia Records was 1974’s “Honey Bee,” which flopped. She got dropped from Columbia Records, but was then quickly signed to MGM Records. In 1975, she had her breakthrough single with a cover version of the Jackson 5’s 1971 hit “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Her dance version of the song became a success, just as disco was becoming a major force in pop culture. Gaynor was considered the first queen of disco before Donna Summer came along and took that title with a string of hit singles and albums.

Gaynor freely admits that her career was never the same after the “Disco Sucks” backlash in the early 1980s. This backlash was spearheaded mainly by rock fans who didn’t like how disco was taking over radio airwaves and music charts. In the 1980s, she became a born-again Christian and eventually made the switch to gospel music. These days, Gaynor’s concerts are a mixture of her old hits and her newer gospel songs.

It would’ve been very easy for this documentary to be mostly a nostalgia trip. The movie does have a lot of great archival footage from Gaynor’s secular music years, but most of the documentary’s narrative is in showing the recording of her gospel album “Testimony,” which was recorded in Nashville and released in 2019. What many viewers probably won’t know is that it took several years for the album to be made.

“Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” chronicles this journey, including showing the frustrations of Gaynor and her team (including her sassy manager Stephanie Gold) in trying to get Gaynor a record deal at an age when most people are expected to be retired. In the documentary, Gaynor says she has no plans to retire anytime soon.

In addition to ageism, another obstacle that Gaynor has in getting a record deal is her image as a disco diva, which still looms large, because “I Will Survive” is her biggest hit. She is told that, realistically, many people don’t know or don’t care that Gaynor is now a gospel singer. The documentary shows a series of rejection letters that Gaynor gets from record companies.

Gaynor and members of her team are shown in a conference room meeting with Jackie Patillo, president/ executive director of the Gospel Music Association. Patillo gives Gaynor this crucial advice: Form “strategic alliances” with well-known hit artists in gospel music and contemporary Christian musc, and make song collaborations with them.

And sure enough, artists such as Yolanda Adams, MercyMe singer Bart Millard, and the Crabb Family singer Jason Crabb end up collaborating with Gaynor on the “Testimony” album. The documentary has some very entertaining footage from these recording sessions that show immense vocal talent on display. (Crabb also performed “Singing Over Me” with Gaynor at the Tribeca Festival premiere of this documentary.)

Also in these recording session scenes are musician Mike Farris, music producer F. Reid Shippen and music producer Chris Stephens, a self-described Gaynor superfan who used to have his own disco group. Far from Gaynor having to beg these younger artists to perform with her, these artists are immensely flattered that they have been asked and seem to be a little star-struck by Gaynor too. Over time, it’s easy to see that Gaynor was recording a very special album.

The documentary weaves the making of the album into Gaynor’s memories of her past that she shares in interviews for the movie. She details how, at the height of her success for “I Will Survive,” she was actually very lonely. But then, she met and fell in love with Linwood Simon, the brother of her backup singing group the Simon Sisters. At the time that Simon and Gaynor met, he was a police officer, but he quickly became her manager, even though he had no previous experience in the music business. Gaynor and Simon got married in 1979.

Gaynor describes the courtship and early years of their marriage as Simon being her “knight in shining armor” in a “fairytale romance.” That fairytale eventually turned into a nightmare. Gaynor says that Simon was very controlling and chronically unfaithful to her. His controlling ways and his tendency to send her on grueling tours chipped away at her self-esteem and her health, Gaynor says.

Because she was afraid of being abandoned, Gaynor admits that she stayed longer in the marriage than she should have. Simon and Gaynor divorced in 2005. Concert agent George Leightner, who worked with Gaynor in 1980s, has this observation of Gaynor’s marriage that turned miserable: “It’s ironic that she did the song ‘I Will Survive,’ because she was barely living.” Gaynor admits, “I allowed myself to be controlled.”

Gaynor also gets candid about her health issues, particularly a serious back injury that she got when she fell down on stage during a concert in New York City in 1978. She experienced paralysis from the waist down for three months. And she had the first of many back surgeries that left her hunched over and in constant pain in her elderly years. The documentary includes Gaynor’s journey to getting a transformative back surgery. Dr. Hooman Melamed, a New York City-based orthopedic back surgeon who performed the operation, is interviewed in the documentary.

Most documentaries about entertainers include descriptions of drug or alcohol use. Gaynor says that in her 1970s and 1980s heyday, she and Simon liked to party. She says that she drank alcohol and occasionally smoked marijuana, but she never had any addictions. She describes a vivid memory of a party in the 1980s where she tried cocaine for the first time because she suspected that her husband was going to have a tryst with one of the women at the party, and Gaynor didn’t want to fall asleep.

After snorting the cocaine, Gaynor says that she felt something grab her chest and tell her that it was enough. And she says she never did cocaine again. In the documentary, Gaynor says she believes that God was speaking to her in that moment. It had a profound effect on her and motivated her to strengthen her faith in Christianity. Alfonso R. “A.R.” Bernard Sr., pastor of the Christian Cultural Center, says that Gaynor joined his church around this time.

Gaynor’s 1997 memoir “I Will Survive: The Book” covers some of the same topics that are in “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive,” but this documentary is obviously much more focused on Gaynor’s 21st century life. She’s able to look back on some of her biggest mistakes (including staying too long in a toxic marriage) with candor and wisdom.

One curious aspect of the documentary is that none of Gaynor’s siblings is interviewed in the movie. However, Gaynor’s niece Hosanna Proctor is briefly featured in the documentary, which shows her choking up with tears when she described Gaynor as the “rock” and the “matriarch” of the family. “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” mentions the 1995 murder of Gaynor’s only sister, Irma Proctor, who was kicked to death in Elizabeth, New Jersey, because she tried to stop a fight. Her murderer was convicted and sent to prison.

Gaynor’s grief over this murder is too painful for her to discuss at length in the documentary. A subject that isn’t discussed at all in the film is Gaynor’s regret over not having children, because her then-husband didn’t want any children. It’s a regret that Gaynor has expressed in other interviews, but not in this documentary, which doesn’t mention the parenting issue at all.

The documentary shows that Gaynor’s manager Gold is the non-biological family member who’s the closest to Gaynor. “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” has several sometimes-comedic scenes of the sisterly relationship that Gaynor has with Gold, who was originally hired at Gaynor’s personal assistant. Gold says that she went to work for Gaynor in 2004, during a low point in Gaynor’s life.

“I came to help her,” says Gold. “She didn’t have any money. She was struggling.” Gold also describes their relationship as mercurial, saying that she and Gaynor can “fight like cats and dogs” and then “forget it three seconds later.” Gaynor says that even though Gold is much younger than Gaynor, her managerial role often makes it feel like Gold is the “older” sister.

Gaynor says that she decided to go public about her sexual abuse because Gold told her Gaynor’s story would help other survivors of sexual abuse. In the documentary, Gaynor mentions that the first time she was sexually abused was when she was 12 years old and sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend at the time. The second time she was sexually abused was at age 17, and the abuser was the cousin of her boyfriend at the time.

The documentary includes footage that show the impact and legacy of “I Will Survive,” including the song being added to the U.S. National Recording Registry in 2016. One of the movie’s highlights is footage of Gaynor paying an emotional visit students and employees of Luis Vives School in Valencia, Spain. In 2016, Valencia was reeling from a tragc bus accident that killed 13 exchange students. The tween students of Luis Vives School did a performance of “I Will Survive” in a video that went viral.

Some music stars secretly hate their biggest hit, but that’s not the case with Gaynor. She says it’s because she knows “I Will Survive” has helped countless people, including herself, through difficult times. (ABC News anchor Robin Roberts, a cancer survivor, is a Gaynor fan and is shown briefly meeting Gaynor and telling her how much “I Will Survive” means to her.) “I feel a great sense of responsibility,” Gaynor says of the impact that her music has had on people. “I am flattered that God would trust me with this.”

At her advanced age, Gaynor says she can no longer do the type of extensive touring (more than 300 shows a year) that she used to do. These days, Gaynor says she does about 40 to 50 concerts a year. “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” doesn’t have much footage of Gaynor at home (the documentary mentions that she lives in Green Brook Township, New Jersey), but that’s probably because she still travels a lot.

A fascinating thing that most people don’t know but is mentioned in the documentary is that at the age of 65, around the same age she was when she got divorced, Gaynor decided to fulfill her longtime dream of going to college. An epilogue in the documentary shows what the outcome was for this academic pursuit. Watching “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” is not only a testament to her talent and durability but it’s also proof that someone’s age should not dictate how much personal growth that someone can continue to have.

UPDATE: Fathom Events will release “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” in select U.S. cinemas on February 13, 2024.

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