Opening Night of the 52nd Nashviille Film Festival featured the documentary “Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive” directed by Betsy Schechter. The 80-year-old Queen of Disco—only recipient ever of a Grammy for disco music—is far from done on the world’s stage. She may have peaked in the 70s with “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “I Will Survive,” but her recently released album of Gospel songs, “Testament, earned her a second Grammy, and she isn’t done yet.
Said Ms. Gaynor, born Gloria Fowles in Newark, New Jersey in 1943, “It’s been an incredible journey. I’m just grateful to have the opportunity.”
Born one of 7 children to a single mother in Newark, New Jersey, Gloria never had a father, lost her mother at 25, and her only sister was beaten to death while trying to stop an attack on another. Gloria’s own history with men was far from romantic, with two incidents of sexual abuse at ages 12 and 17, and a divorce from her husband at age 65. Gloria has no children, as her husband Linwood did not want any.
After a concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City in 1978, when Gloria tripped over a piece of equipment onstage and fell backwards, she woke up paralyzed from the waist down. She spent 3 months in the hospital and twenty years with serious back injuries, until, at age 75, Dr. Hooman Melamed performed an 18 hour surgery on Gloria, placing 12 rods in her spine to enable her to walk again. Gloria converted to Christianity in 1982 and would embark on an ambitious journey to record a gospel album, culminating in the award-winning “Testament” after a 2013 effort failed.
As her manager Stephanie Gold recounted, “Nobody wanted this album. Nobody.” So Gloria set out to underwrite the expense of the album herself and enlisted such heavy hitters as producer Chris Steven and Bart Millard (“Mercy Me) and Jason Crabb.
Gloria’s humility and gratitude shines through in her remarks and in her actions. Shown writing a song with Bart Millard, Gloria says, “He’s a prolific writer whereas I’m still just trying after 40 years.” (The result wins the Gospel Grammy)
Gloria’s desire to “keep on keeping on” shines through during the entire film. She admits that just chilling out does not appeal to her and says that performing only 40 to 50 shows a year, at age 80, is down from the 300 she performed here and abroad when married to Linwood Simon, who kept her working non-stop and succumbed to life in the fast lane that Gloria fought against. You can’t help but feel that this album (and another currently being planned) represent, to some extent, a “giving back” to others, as Gloria’s own career winds down. Several times she mentions her 1982 religious rebirth and her desire to help others. Her own backsliding when married to Linwood she defines as feeling that “my moral fiber was dwindling” and her recent albums of Gospel music seem a chance to reconnect with her roots and, in some ways, to repay. She mentions that God has the timing down and she felt he had given her a “wake-up call.”
The movie has a “feel good” quality to it, especially in the scenes where the studio musicians are performing together (something that Gloria said she had not experienced before during her recording of 19 albums), and the result sounds like a true testament to the talent and determination of the woman whose anthem “I Will Survive” has been voted the #2 Greatest Disco Song of All Time (VH1). Rolling Stone, in 2021, said that “I Will Survive” was #251 on a list of The Greatest Songs of All Time. It has inspired and comforted many a lover after a break-up, but also given hope to the LGBQT community and, in the case of the song’s writer, convinced him that he would live to fight another day when he had just been fired by Motown. The song was written by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren and was originally the “B” side of a British hit called “Substitute.” (“You’re going to put that on the B side? What are you—-nuts?” says Gaynor).
You get a feeling of affectionate warmth from the coming together of talents of today in service to Gloria’s vision of a Gospel Roots album. They all seem to creatively feed on one another during the live sessions shown. It is heartwarming to see iconic singers of the past partner with today’s singers, much as Tony Bennett did with Lady Gaga. The affection that the singers have for one another is obvious and both Bart Millard and Jason Crabb were present in person this night. (Also present in the lobby was Steve Cropper, the “Play It, Steve” of the Blues Brothers movie.)
This is an inspiring and entertaining look at the career of a one-woman dynamo. It holds up very nicely against the recent Little Richard documentary and the one that focused on Donna Summer. In some ways it is a more dramatic story, when all of the travails that Gloria Gaynor has faced are depicted. She seems to embody the message “I Will Survive.”‘ With the recent sad passing of the legendary Tina Turner, it is heartwarming and encouraging to hear that Gloria Gaynor is alive and well and working on another new album in a genre that some thought she shouldn’t tackle.
To cite another famous lyric, Gloria Gaynor is “getting by with a little help from her friends.”