'Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive' Details Triumphs and Tragedies of Singer's Life
In the words of the 80-year old superstar, 'For 40 years I've been telling you I will survive, but I've never told you how'
"I Will Survive" shot to the top of the charts at the height of the disco craze and made Gloria Gaynor a superstar. The song, with its upbeat tempo and empowering lyrics, resonated with audiences around the world and became an anthem for her own life.
A new documentary in theaters Feb. 13th titled "Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive," outlines her story of extraordinary success, as well as the personal challenges, tragedies and setbacks along the way. It details her difficult journey growing up without a father, childhood sexual abuse, a fall from a stage that left her with debilitating spinal injuries, the early death of her mother and the abrupt shift in her career with the "death of disco." And yet, through it all, Gaynor has persevered.
As she says at the beginning of the film's trailer, "For forty years I've been telling you I will survive, but I never told you how."
The Megahit 'I Will Survive'
She burst onto the music scene in the 1970's with her cover of the Jackson Five hit "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Let Me Know (I Have a Right)," and others. But her megahit "I Will Survive" became her signature song. It also won her a Grammy, becoming the only song to do so in the short-lived disco category.
"Every decade I have lived through, there is a new reason for people to relate to this song."
Even as the disco era ended, "I Will Survive" remained popular through movies and TV shows, other artist covers, and as a karaoke favorite. The Library of Congress cemented the song's place in music history by adding it to the National Recording Registry in 2016.
Gaynor knew it was special the first time she heard it, but never dreamed it would have such a lasting impact.
"Every decade I have lived through, there is a new reason for people to relate to this song," she says. "This is a gift that has been given to me that I can share with other people."
Betsy Schechter, director of "Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive," says she was surprised to see how the song still touches audiences.
A Poster Child for Her Own Song
"I've seen Gloria sing 'I Will Survive' many times and I asked her if she ever gets tired of singing it. She says no, because she's heard so many stories from people who said they were contemplating suicide or dealing with some other challenge and then they heard this song," Schechter says. "After traveling with her in the U.S. and Europe, and seeing people come up and talk to her, I've seen it for myself. The song empowers people to accomplish big things and refuse to give up."
Gaynor has become the poster child for her own song. In addition to pushing through the challenges she faced early in her life and career, her "second act" may be her best yet. At 65 years old, she divorced her husband of 25 years, who was also her manager. As Gaynor sought new representation, she couldn't get anyone to manage her due to her age. She hired an assistant instead. Stephanie Gold eventually eased into the management position, helping Gaynor achieve a longtime dream of recording a Gospel album.
"This was something I wanted to do for many years, but my previous manager didn't want me to do it," Gaynor says in an interview with Next Avenue. "And instead of telling me that, he kept stalling and stalling and saying we'll do it, we'll do it. After I got rid of that management, Stephanie came into my life, had respect for my desires for my own career and was willing to help me accomplish that."
It wouldn't be easy. While Gold wanted to help Gaynor, there was little support elsewhere in the music community.
"No one wants this album, nobody," Gold says in the documentary. "Not one record company, especially with an artist who is older and changing genres of music. We went from one place to the other and they didn't think Gloria should be doing Gospel."
The Power of Determination
Gaynor ended up financing the album herself. Completing it would take years. Schechter recalls meeting Gaynor around the time Gaynor and Gold started moving forward with the project.
"We were introduced by a mutual friend, Gloria was about to embark on making this album, and her producer, Chris Stevens, thought we should document it. When I first met her, Gloria was 71 and had just gotten her college degree. (Gaynor went back to college at 65 and due to traveling and tours, it took her six years to get her degree.) I thought, wow, this is somebody really interesting and her back story is unbelievable," Schechter says.
"The song empowers people to accomplish big things and refuse to give up."
Schechter's film follows Gaynor through the Nashville recording process with Stevens and the established Christian artists who joined her on the project. It tracks Gaynor as she works on the album, but it also dips back and forth into her life and history, through her childhood, the start of the disco scene through never-before-seen Super 8 footage, and other phases of her life. She discusses the pain of her father abandoning her, sexual abuse as a child by people she knew and trusted, her brief involvement with drugs early in her career and her failed marriage.
"I felt if I was going to share the story, I needed to tell enough of it to help people understand what I've come through, and how I not only survived but thrived," says Gaynor. "I want them to know they can do the same."
She credits her faith with bringing her through those difficult times.
"My faith brought me through all of this. I also have some friends who've been there for me. God put people strategically in my life when they were needed. So, I've had a lot of help along the way."
Guided by her strong faith, Gaynor has rarely taken time to reflect on her own strength and courage. It was one of the things that surprised her most when she saw the completed documentary for the first time.
"I hadn't recognized my own resilience or my own determination to continue plowing forward. And one of the things I noticed early on was I hadn't realized how wounded I was with my father abandoning me, the sexual abuse, the low self-esteem, and all of that," she says.
Throughout much of the film, Gaynor struggles to walk due to excruciating back pain. It stems from her 1978 fall from a theater stage and the surgeries that followed.
She'd lost hope of ever correcting it until Gold did some research and found an orthopedic spinal surgeon who could help. Despite warnings it could be a dangerous operation, especially at her age, Gaynor decided to take the chance.
'Definitely More Music Coming'
How is she doing now, years after the surgery, as she nears her 81st birthday in September?
"I'm doing pretty good," she says. "I'm taking CrossFit three times a week. There are some limitations, but I'm going strong and will continue going strong as long as I can."
"It doesn't matter how old you get, you can always have new chapters in your life."
She released "Testimony" in 2019. The dream Gospel album she fought so hard to make won Gaynor her second Grammy. The songs, some of which she wrote or co-wrote, are largely autobiographical, including one aptly called "Back On Top."
Gaynor is now working on what comes next.
"There's definitely more music coming. We've got new music in the can, as they say, and we're adding to it so we can put it together and release it soon," she says.
There are other projects in the works, as well. Gaynor believes there's always new chapters, if you're open and willing to embrace them.
"It doesn't matter how old you get, you can always have new chapters in your life," she says. "You can keep discovering new things about yourself, new abilities, new desires, things you'd like to accomplish to keep you going and have your life be challenging and fun."
Editor’s note: "Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive" will be in theaters around the country on Feb. 13th for one day only, with shows at 4 pm and 7 pm. (More information here.) Gaynor has recorded an “I Will Survive” sing-along version at the end of the film. She hopes it will be a celebratory coming-together experience of personal empowerment.