Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
by Christopher Bourne Featured Film

Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive — Betsy Schechter [Tribeca ’23 Review]

June 16, 2023

Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 classic disco track “I Will Survive,” written and produced by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren, boasts as its nominal subject a woman’s defiant kiss-off to a former lover attempting to re-enter her life. However, in the 40-plus years since its release, the song’s meaning has moved well beyond that to become an anthem of inner strength and resilience — the will to overcome struggles and obstacles in life. As powerfully demonstrated in Betsy Schechter’s documentary, Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, song and singer were perfectly matched, since Gaynor herself had gone through very difficult circumstances in her own life.

The film employs two parallel narrative tracks, detailing the long, hard road to “I Will Survive” — her greatest musical success — and documenting her present-day efforts to record a gospel album called Testimony, along with the resistance she encounters as an older artist in the industry switching musical genres. From a young age, Gaynor suffered trauma, starting with her father abandoning her family early on, and then suffering sexual assault twice in her teens; later, her sister was murdered. Her love of music and the discovery of her singing talent helped her through these horrific circumstances, but it took many years of recording and performing before she landed her first pop hit, a 1975 disco cover of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which the Jackson 5 had made bank with a few years earlier. Her subsequent singles were unsuccessful, and during a 1978 performance at New York’s Beacon Theatre, Gaynor suffered a bad fall on stage, which briefly paralyzed her and led to physical problems for decades afterward. She later recorded “I Will Survive” while wearing a back brace.

After the enormous success of “I Will Survive,” which nabbed the artist her first and only #1 pop hit, as well as the only Grammy ever awarded for best disco recording, more difficult years followed. The disco backlash that occurred not too long after was considerable, effectively putting a halt to Gaynor’s career in the U.S., as it did for many others in the genre. Gaynor was able to sustain a career by touring Europe, but this entailed a grueling schedule that exacerbated the physical toll on her body caused by her stage injury. This schedule was imposed on her by her husband and manager, Linwood Simon, who would send her away to perform while he remained home philandering and abusing drugs. When Gaynor finally divorced Simon after 25 years of marriage, she was left in dire financial circumstances due to Simon’s financial mismanagement. 

It’s an undeniably harrowing saga for a figure who has become larger-than-life in our cultural memory, but one told here will skill and compassion. There’s no denying that I Will Survive hits the inspirational beats one would expect for this sort of story, but they are no less effective or moving for their familiarity. The final product is a potent portrayal of and ode to the survivor who so memorably gifted listeners with the ultimate song about survival.

Published as part of ddd

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