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Celebrating Donna Summer — and 20 years of IFFBoston

The documentary ‘Love to Love You, Donna Summer’ and biopic of a beloved mobile phone, ‘BlackBerry,’ are two films worth checking out

A still from "Love to Love You, Donna Summer."HBO

Film festivals are great places to see films you may not have known existed — cinematic discoveries abound. They are also a good place to meet fellow film buffs and, quite often, the filmmakers themselves.

Now, Boston residents have an opportunity to see what the fuss is about: Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFBoston), which runs April 26-May 3 at the Brattle, Coolidge Corner, and Somerville theaters, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an intriguing slate of nearly 90 films, including features, documentaries, and shorts.

One documentary I’m looking forward to is “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” which screens at 5 p.m. May 1 at the Brattle. Director James Adolphus looks at the life and career of the groundbreaking, Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning television icon. I’m taking my own advice and attending this screening.


Here are two selections I’ve seen already — and that are worth your time.

‘Love to Love You, Donna Summer’

“The possibilities of a Black girl from Boston going to Germany and becoming successful in the American pop field is a million-to-one shot,” says Donna Summer, the subject of this riveting documentary by Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams (“Music by Prudence”) and Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano.

The festival opener screens at 7:30 p.m. April 26 at Somerville Theatre.

Honoring a Boston legend seems appropriate for a festival celebrating its own hometown longevity. Summer had a string of hits that earned their rightful places in the musical canon of the 20th century. She made songs like “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “I Feel Love,” and the nearly 17-minute, moan-filled song that gives the film its title, “Love to Love You Baby,” into classics.

“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” reminds us just how catchy those songs were — and continue to be (thank goodness I had a screener at home, because I couldn’t stop singing along with the concert footage). The film also showcases Summer’s songwriting, a talent often ignored by critics and unknown by the public.


Sudano and Williams cover Summer’s career extensively, but their film is more than just a chronicle of professional highs and lows. Sudano — along with her siblings, father, and aunt — discuss Summer’s life off the stage. We hear their voices over clips of the singer that range from grainy home movies to professional photos, all skillfully edited together by Enat Sidi and Jon Stray.

As a result, “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” becomes the intensely personal journey of an adult daughter piecing together the journey of her famous mother. We bear witness to Summer’s personal triumphs and tragedies, often hearing from the singer herself. Seeing her out of makeup and just being a regular person brings the musical legend down to earth.

Sudano and Williams do not shy away from the darker elements of Summer’s life, documenting her upbringing in Boston, her sexual abuse, and the controversy over homophobic comments she allegedly made to a magazine after embracing Christianity.

“Boston in the 1950s was not a friendly city for people of color,” Summer’s brother Ricky Gaines says as he recounts the tale of how she got her facial scar while being chased by white kids spewing slurs. To escape, Summer went to Germany where she became a success and met producer Giorgio Moroder, the man most associated with her hits. Moroder is interviewed here, as are other producers and collaborators.


Later, “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” clarifies what Summer did and did not say about the queer fanbase that essentially gave her a career.

This is a complex, often moving documentary, and a fine choice to open IFFBoston.

A still from "BlackBerry."IFC Films


I confess: I had a BlackBerry, and know the story of the ill-fated device that was once the most popular phone in the world. In fact, I brought my old BlackBerry to my New York City screening of director Matt Johnson’s entertaining “biopic,” a screening attended solely by me and an employee from the wireless tech company Qualcomm. He brought his BlackBerry, too.

Here’s hoping that the Somerville Theatre screening May 2 at 7 p.m. will be better attended.

“BlackBerry” is a lot of fun, even in its most dire moments. It’s a story of two Canadian friends, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson), who start a company called Research In Motion (RIM) to promote a product they believe in but are not equipped to market, manage, or sell.

Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a hard-nosed, experienced businessman who becomes co-CEO of RIM and helps make the BlackBerry a success. He also contributes to its downfall, as does competition from sexier devices like the iPhone.

It sounds dry as a bone, but “BlackBerry” is a very funny and biting cautionary tale of the perils of success. At its heart is a moving and sad story of a friendship battered by business dealings. The performances are uniformly excellent and the two-hour runtime zips by.


In addition to features, IFFBoston has several slates of short films (documentary and fiction), including a free student showcase featuring films made by area college students. Hidden gems are always to be found in these packages. After all, more than one famous director — Spielberg and Scorsese, to name a couple — started by making short films.

See you at the festival!

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.