The Bootleg Files: The Donna Summer Special

BOOTLEG FILES 638: “The Donna Summer Special” (1980 television special starring The Queen of Disco).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


Clearing music rights have prevented its reissue.


By January 1980, Donna Summer was at the peak of her career. Dubbed “The Queen of Disco” by the entertainment media, her songs were in constant play on the radio and the music industry had showered her with awards. Her performance in the 1978 film “Thank God It’s Friday” elevated that forgettable B-movie to pop culture immortality with her rendition of the song “Last Dance,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

With the dawn of the 80s, ABC contracted Summer for a one-off television special. It would be a thrill to report that “The Donna Summer Special” fell in line with the loopy, campy specials that polluted television during that significantly less-than-sophisticated era. However, the program is a mild endeavor that never fully plumbs the star’s considerable talents.

The production opens with Summer in a very tight close-up, reciting a fable in a too-serious manner. “Once upon a time in the land of never-never, when all things real are unavailable, there lived a little girl who believe all her hopes and dreams could someday come true.” Of course, that little girl was none other than Summer, who is then initially shown as a humble singer in a church choir. That quickly segues into a concert sequence, with the glammed-up Summer blithely announcing to a cheering crowd that she enjoyed being with “17,000 of my closest friends.”

For those who never saw Summer in her prime or barely recall her glory days, “The Donna Summer Special” is invaluable in recalling her charisma as a live performer. Unlike today’s self-described divas who require multiple costume changes and a small army of dancers gyrating through pyrotechnic displays, Summer had the ability to command attention and devotion through a sheer force of vocal power and force of personality. Looking back, it seems like Summer was the last of the true superstars who commanded a stage through talent and not through costume design, distractions or vulgar shtick.

Had “The Donna Summer Special” focused solely on a concert performance, the production might have been destined for classic status. Sadly, it opted to go in satisfactory directions that never truly showed its central attraction at her best. There is a sticky-icky segment with Summer singing a bedtime lullaby to her daughter Mimi – the child is shown with her adolescent peers replicating her mom’s concert act – and there is also a tacky sequence where Summer rips through “Bad Girls” supported by a weird back-up consisting of the paper-thin 1960s model Twiggy, the zaftig underground film icon Pat Ast and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” actress Debralee Scott. The guest star parade is capped when Robert Guillaume from the ABC sitcom “Benson” appears as an angel, reminding Summer that “up in Heaven we love men and women equally!” Summer looks at him askew and declares, “Well, I got some friends here in Hollywood that feel the same way.” After a trick photography sequence with Guillaume playing all five Temptations in a cover of “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” he joins Summer in a glorious version of the Simon and Garfunkel standard “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Two set pieces are included that seem more focused on camera versatility and production design rather than Summer’s vocal versatility: the tune “Sunset People” is filmed with B-movie gritty-chic along Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, while a riff on “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” takes place in an Art Deco nightclub with Summer dolled up in retro fashions. Both segments are lethargically staged and edited and Summer’s somnambulist acting does not represent her finest moments on camera.

Instead, the best is left for last: a Hollywood Bowl concert where Summer rips into “Last Dance” while inviting audience members to join her on stage for a triumphant dance. When she is being herself in the midst of a high-energy concert environment, Summer is a vibrant, kinetic bolt of brilliance – her audience loves her and she returns the love tenfold with a dynamic vibe that made the moment seem like the ultimate party.

ABC aired “The Donna Summer Special” on January 27, 1980, and the show gained two Emmy Award nominations in technical categories. For Summer, however, it was end of a glorious reign at the top of the charts and beginning of a slow career decline: shortly after the special aired, she parted ways with Casablanca Records, which turned out her 70s disco hits, and signed with Geffen Records, which never truly gave her the material and support she required. Complicating matters was the evaporation of disco’s popularity – what was considered cutting edge in the late 70s was viewed as antiquated in the early 80s. By the time her hit song “She Works Hard for the Money” came out in 1983, Summer’s star had waned so dramatically that many saw the tune as a comeback.

“The Donna Summer Special” was mostly forgotten until duped copies began to emerge on YouTube in the past few years. To date, there has been no effort to bring the production to an official home entertainment release – the costs of clearing the music rights and doing a proper digital restoration are obviously too prohibitive for consideration. Mercifully, the unauthorized postings online are pristine enough to warrant viewing without generating eye fatigue. And for Summer’s fans, this nostalgic visit is a pleasant distraction.

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