Giorgio Moroder Discusses His Legacy With Donna Summer, as New Films Recall Their Legendary Collaboration

Perhaps without you realizing it, there’s a strong chance that the last 12 months of your life have been graced by the classic, sequenced electronic disco of Italian songwriter, producer and soundtrack composer Giorgio Moroder.

If 2022-2023 winds up as one of Moroder’s biggest years, that will have happened nearly by accident. Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer’s mega-box office winner “Top Gun: Maverick” used the composer’s “Danger Zone,” as the original film did. Then there is the fact that Beyoncé sampled his “I Feel Love” for “Summer Renaissance” as part of her 2022 album, “Renaissance.” He was rendered as a big-screen character with Sebastian Maniscalco’s cartoonish portrayal of Moroder in director-writer Timothy Scott Bogart’s “Spinning Gold” biopic (Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that Maniscalco’s Moroder “sounds like a character out of Hogan’s Heroes'”). The Italian producer and composer who now lives in Los Angeles is better-represented in the new documentary on the life of his old friend, HBO Max’s “Love to You Love You, Donna Summer.”

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One of 1970s disco’s primary architects, an provocative influence on ’80s new wave (Blondie’s “Call Me”) and the man behind that era’s moodiest electronic-based soundtracks (“Midnight Express”), Moroder, while working in Munich, crafted the sensualist swirl of 1975’s “Love To Love You Baby” and the syncopated synthetic still-life of 1977’s “I Feel Love” for his young discovery, Donna Summer. After those songs catapulted both to instant fame, Moroder capitalized on his collaboration with Summer for further hit singles such as “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” “Dim All the Lights,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff” and “On the Radio,” all on Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records.

Meanwhile, Moroder’s score for 1978’s “Midnight Express” won him an Academy Award and Golden Globe for best original score, and he won best song Oscars for “Top Gun,” with “Take My Breath Away,” and “Flashdance… What a Feeling.” Other projects have ranged from being asked by Daft Punk to make a spoken-word contribution to their “Random Access Memories” album (just reissued as a 3-LP expanded vinyl edition) to putting out his own solo album in 2015, “Déjà Vu,” featuring Sia, Britney Spears and Charli XCX. But still, perhaps more than anything else, music fans associate him with his work with Summer.

The new documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano (Summer’s daughter with husband-guitarist Bruce Sudano) and premiering this weekend on HBO Max, is a poignant reminder of mom’s inventive music and charmed relationship with Moroder.

Moroder gave Variety a rare interview, reviewing the last 12 months of his life, while working on a new, still-secret film project.

Let’s start at 2021 going into 2022, with “Top Gun: Maverick,” and the use of your 1986 “Top Gun” cut, “Danger Zone.” Was there a conversation about having fresher songs of yours in Tom Cruise’s new film?

We never discussed the use of “Danger Zone” for the new “Top Gun.” That was something that they had already decided to use. I was asked by Tom (Cruise) and Jerry (Bruckheimer) if I would write a new song for their upcoming movie. I had a few ideas which I sent them, two or three songs, but I guess that they weren’t exactly great for what they wanted, as they didn’t use them.

Harold Faltermeyer, the man who wrote the film’s “Top Gun Anthem” for the 1986 soundtrack, was in your employ at that time. As you and Jerry Bruckheimer teamed up on several films before that, did you pass that theme for “Top Gun” on to Faltermeyer?

Yes and no. Harold did work for me (as synthesizer programmer and music advisor, respectively, on 1978’s “Midnight Express” and 1980’s “American Gigolo”). They didn’t ask me to write the entire score, but rather, some of its songs — “Danger Zone,” “Through the Fire,” “Lead Me On” and “Take My Breath Away.”

Giorgio Moroder today
Giorgio Moroder today

I had worked with Bruckheimer before on several films such as “Flashdance,” and the work I did with him for “Top Gun”… I’m not saying “Take My Breath Away” or “Danger Zone” were easy, but it just happened that they came at a point in my life as a composer where I was lucky. Those songs were written in a relatively quick amount of time, and, yes, Jerry was very easy to work with.

Sticking with film, did you see “Spinning Gold,” Timothy Scott Bogart’s biopic based on the life of his father, Casablanca founder Neil Bogart? It’s a wild dramatization of his dad’s label and your time composing and producing Donna Summer.

No, I have not. I usually watch films on streaming, as I don’t always have a sense of the language, and not every film in a theater is subtitled.

So, you have no sense of how Neil Bogart’s son re-told his version of his father’s story.

Well, no, but from what I have read, it is not that great. I did see a trailer with the character who is supposed to be me, in it for one or two seconds. If I could recognize me.

“Spinning Gold” has Bogart himself in the studio with Donna, recording her orgasmic moans. We know historically that’s not accurate. But is it true that, after playing the shorter single version at a party, he phoned you and asked you to do a 20-minute version of the track?

Yes, actually, that is correct. He did request a longer version. The single version was actually a hit in some places in Europe, but not in the States. One evening I was in Munich, working, and I got a call from Neil asking if Donna and I were willing and able to do a one-side-of-an-album version of “Love to Love You Baby.” I agreed, and we did it in a matter of two, three weeks.

Was Summer reluctant to re-do the track with its extended moans and groans?

Yes. In the beginning, maybe, but from what she told me later, Donna actually thought what we were doing was more of a demo than something that would actually be released. Nobody thought that it would get released again, let alone be a big hit. I know that she was really reluctant to ever do that song live, too.

Did the song’s prurient reaction in the U.S. surprise you?

Yeah, but I kind of liked that [laughs]. Maybe there were instances where we went a little too far, but that was that time. And time changes. Look at what happened when (Serge Gainsbourg’s) “Je t’aime… moi non plus” came out. Scandalous. It was a new sexual brand of song. I wanted to go a little bit farther than that. In retrospect, maybe I did too much of the sexual thing, but all in all, half of the audience loved it, and the other half hated it.

The HBO Max documentary, “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” talks about how deeply private a woman she was, and how secretive she could be. As her primary collaborator for so many years, did you find Summer secretive?

We were close, even though at the beginning of our relationship, so much of our time was divided, me mostly in Munich and her mostly in America after her success. After the mid-1980s, when disco was going away, kind of, I had less contact with her, but grew closer to her again, and saw her often, during the last years of her life as she lived in the same building as I did in Los Angeles. We got close again before she died.

One of the things that you did say in the documentary is that she thought of you as a mentor, that you took her under your wing after she had previously had abusive male figures in her life.  That sounds as personal as it was professional.

I suppose that is true. What I remember about that is that Donna was married to an Austrian guy, Helmut, and I never heard anything bad about him. When they split, Donna hooked up with a German guy who I heard was not so nice of a guy. Donna wasn’t the one who told me that. Neil Bogart got him out of her life. It was not a happy situation. Before that, when Pete (Bellotte), Donna and I first got together, she was doing kind of okay in Munich. After she finished the run of “Hair: The Musical” she began doing recordings, some background vocals. Pete and I were looking for artists at that time, saw her, heard her, liked her and decided to work with her. With the third song we did together, “Love to Love You, Baby,” we broke out together – her as a vocalist, and me as a producer and as a composer. That was special. If she ever believed that I was something of a mentor, that was OK, considering the years that we worked so closely together.

This gets glossed over in the documentary – how in 1981, you, Bellotte and Summer were working on the second album for David Geffen, and he turned it down for release, and pulled in Quincy Jones as Donna’s producer instead. The album eventually got released as “I’m a Rainbow.” You had all these hits on singles charts, dance floors and film soundtracks, then, boom. Rejection. How did that make you feel?

[Laughs.] It was not a pleasant experience. I started thinking all that went into it. After all was said and done, actually, it was not a great album. I had to agree with that. Maybe what we or Geffen should have done at the time was release it as a single album, rather than the double album we intended. We could have taken it down to 10 great songs. Geffen decided otherwise.

Considering HBO’s documentary and all of the music the two of you made together, what is your opinion of the musical collaboration that you shared with Summer?

I think that our musical relationship was really, really good. She believed in what Pete and I were doing, and co-wrote the songs with us, while I did most of the music. She was very much involved. It was less of a singer-producer relationship and more like three guys working on songs together. That camaraderie had much to do with the success of our music.

Giorgio Moroder
Giorgio Moroder

One of the things that you say in the documentary is that “I Feel Love” is the flashpoint for all electronic pop that follows in its wake, that every other electro song is influenced by your track. Do you feel as if its initial power is reached by Beyoncé’s liberal sampling of “I Feel Love” for her “Renaissance”? Is “I Feel Love” still the start of electro-pop, or electro dance music, considering everything you have done since?

I still love it. That first version, too. I did one version of that song for a show in Italy, and I noticed that whatever I used to replicate that track – I didn’t have the original Moog, sadly – it didn’t have the impact of the original track. Nothing is as good as my original version of “I Feel Love.” The sound was bold, very difficult to create, a moment in time where everything was right – the sound, tempo and melody was perfect. Whenever I hear “I Feel Love” I still think it is powerful. And I’ve heard every version of it. 

So, you think that yours and Donna’s version is better than what Beyoncé did?

[Laughs.] Definitely. She’s not really doing the whole song, but still…

The last time you performed DJ sets in the U.S., we discussed your work on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” You said then that “I didn’t really learn anything from working with them. All I really did on that song was talk about my life, and I wasn’t exactly sure what they were going to do with my story or my voice. They didn’t tell me all the details. Still, I was delighted with how they integrated my voice into their work — the tracks were great.” Considering that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter just released an expanded three-album version for its 10th anniversary, what do you think now of the Daft Punk process?

That’s true. And they gave me a Grammy (in 2014, for album of the year). It was a very pleasant afternoon in a recording studio in Paris with them. I had no idea what they wanted, save than using my voice for a song. But I had no idea how they would use it. I like the song and the album, and I still never heard the longer version of my track, a 16-minutes-long version. By cutting down all that I said then, editing down the track, it sounded a little strange — my accent. But it is really good.

You said that you had to leave this interview early as you’re currently in the recording studio. You did one new artist album a few years back (2015’s “Déjà Vu”) and the soundtrack music to the video game “Tron RUN/r” (2016). What is occupying your time, now?

The idea is to do a short movie, and while I can’t mention the names yet, a director friend of mine and I are working on a film, with me, so far, providing 12 minutes of a soundtrack. Without seeing any film, I’m going to imagine what that music could be. That is thrilling, that not knowing what is coming.

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