The film Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive showcases the remarkable life and career of one of the most iconic artists in the entertainment industry.
It’s been forty-five years since the release of Gloria Gaynor’s hit song “I Will Survive,” and over four decades later, it remains one of the most influential disco hits to date. In the singer’s new documentary, Betsy Schechter’s film Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, it’s shocking to discover that the inspirational track that has resonated with so many people all over the world and catapulted Gaynor to major stardom was originally a B-side record on her sixth album, “Love Tracks,” which was released in 1978.
And though the song became a roaring success, Gaynor recounts that period of her life as one of the toughest. While the anthem pertains to a breakup, when recording the track, it resonated with the singer for a much different reason. At the time, Gaynor was recovering from back surgery after a fall on stage that initially paralyzed her from the waist down, resulting in her hospitalization for three months. During the recording of “I Will Survive,” the singer was in a back brace, and before the album was produced, Gaynor was almost let go from her record label. However, fate stepped in when a new president joined the company. His vision was to gain success with an artist stateside after notable achievement managing the label in the UK, and Gaynor was the artist he wished to put front and center to achieve said success.
Luckily, the plan came to fruition. After Gaynor requested the song be distributed around New York nightclubs, knowing it would receive positive feedback from the public, “I Will Survive” was released as a single. From there, it took the top spot in the charts and remained at number one for three weeks. By 1980, the song had won the first and only Grammy for Best Disco Recording.
Though I’ll admit that “I Will Survive” is the only track of Gaynor’s that I am familiar with, she represents so much more than the hit song. I knew very little about the star before watching the film, though as soon as I saw the trailer for Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, her upbeat demeanor and fierce vulnerability made me eager to watch it. Not only is the singer’s career fascinating, but just minutes into the documentary, it becomes apparent how resilient and genuine she is, taking none of her success for granted.
Director Betsy Schechter’s telling of Gaynor’s life and career is relatively straightforward, though it fits with Gaynor’s sincere tell-it-how-it-is attitude with a narrative absent of cheesy reenactments and irrelevant fillers. As a viewer, you feel as though you are listening to a friend or family member recount their life story, as opposed to a star, which only adds to the documentary’s realness and Gaynor’s likeability.
Although the documentary takes a no-frills approach, it doesn’t make the details of the singer’s life any less compelling. Viewers are given a thorough overview of Gaynor’s impressive career, told through an archival footage collection consisting of various spectacular performances, most notably in the 1970s. Throughout the film, we also witness Gaynor’s journey through the making of her gospel album “Testimony,” which she began working on in 2015. At the time, there were doubts that her desire to shift music genres wouldn’t be well received, yet the star never gave up hope. She funded the project herself, and her hard work paid off. In 2020, Gaynor won a second Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album.
While watching Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, I was not only impressed by the remarkable life the singer has lived but also shocked by the vast amount of knowledge about the star’s extraordinary yet challenging life that I was unaware of. Gaynor has lived through sexual abuse as a child and teen, the devastating murder of her sister, health challenges, and divorce, though when sharing her story, it never feels forced or manipulative. Instead, the documentary showcases the singer’s undeniable strength and endearing spirit. The title of her hit song, “I Will Survive,” is a testament to the words she continues to live by in her everyday life and, in Gaynor’s case, solidifies that resilience and her faith are the path to recovery.
We also observe the singer’s love and appreciation for her fans and a desire to give back to the community. In a touching moment at one of Gaynor’s book signings, a fan living with HIV expresses how much the hit song “I Will Survive” meant to him after his diagnosis and the powerful message it delivers. We also accompany Gaynor to Spain as she visits students who have experienced a tragic loss. The powerful anthem helped them through grief, and at the event, Gaynor is overcome by the influence her hit record continues to have on generations and its ability to aid in healing. As a viewer, you see just how much Gaynor values the time spent with those her music has touched.
Gaynor’s manager of eleven years, Stephanie Gold, shares how the star often performs for free at charity events as she genuinely cares for each cause. Before Stephanie took over managerial duties, Gaynor’s ex-husband of over twenty years, Linwood, ruled the roost. Gaynor speaks of their challenging relationship and going through a divorce in her 60s; though, despite their differing lifestyle choices, she remains candid, and it never comes across as an excuse to criticize her ex-beau. Gaynor even proclaims, “I never stopped loving him; I began to love me.”
One of the most heartbreaking revelations in Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive is Gaynor revealing that for most of her life, she felt unworthy of love and feared abandonment stemming from an absent father. He left Gaynor’s mother while she was pregnant with the singer causing her to feel unlovable for most of her life. Yet throughout the film, viewers follow Gaynor’s journey to self-love and reinvention after her divorce as she takes back control of her life. You can tell that Gaynor is thriving and has finally found happiness, which is incredibly moving to watch.
But my favorite part of the film is seeing the then-65-year-old singer enroll in college. Gaynor never got to attend when she was a teenager, as she grew up poor, but it had always been a dream of hers. Six years later, she graduated and received her degree in psychology at the age of 71. This is not only a remarkable achievement, but it also proves that age is just a number, and an individual’s dreams should never be deemed unattainable.
Overall, Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive showcases the remarkable life of a woman who is one of the most iconic artists in the entertainment industry. Full of sincerity and authenticity, the narrative flawlessly weaves the singer’s remarkable life and achievements into a heartfelt, must-see documentary. Even if you’re not familiar with Gaynor’s work, her strength and resilience are admirable, and the star is an inspiration to people of all generations. But perhaps the two biggest takeaways from the documentary are that music is a great healer, and even when people face hardships, working towards your goals can revitalize your soul. After all, Gaynor has proven time and time again that with resilience, dedication, and determination, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive will be released in US theaters by Fathom Events on February 13, 2024.