Once Upon A Time
REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/04/2009
Older gay men really seem to treasure this Donna Summer album above all others for some odd reason. In any case, Once Upon A Time is one of those breathless affairs that are more about creating a hypnotic atmosphere than anything really substantial. With predominant backing vocals throughout, Summer is reduced to aural wallpaper -- and it doesn’t help that she is forced to sing in a breathy upper register for the first half of the album. The blame should be squarely placed on the shoulders of producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who are obviously hell-bent on recreating the vibe of the classic single “I Feel Love.” Unfortunately, lightning doesn’t always strike twice. Releasing a one-note double album (unheard of back then) may have assured Donna Summer’s standing as the Queen Of Disco, but it did little to win over the critics… or the straights, especially in America.
This is not your typical American fare; in fact, it was recorded in Munich. Euro-disco was just making headway stateside in 1977, though Once Upon A Time didn’t stand much of a chance being released virtually simultaneously as the gargantuan disco epic soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Of course, from then on the names Donna Summer and Bee Gees would be forever linked in disco heaven… or hell, depending on how you look at it. The two acts would even release their greatest hits packages in the very last week of the 70s, signaling the end of an era. Once upon a time, indeed.
The songs that come at the halfway mark of this album are the best showcases of how strong Donna Summer really was as a vocalist. Both “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” and “A Man Like You” are tracks that still sound fresh today (talk about gay anthems!), unlike the retread tripe that comes before it. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what a song like “Fairy Tale High” sounds like, well, when you’re high! Like you’re floating toward the ceiling probably. All the songs do flow together well, which is perhaps the biggest compliment I can muster for this release. Clearly, I am trying to heed Donna’s advice when she commands me to “Say Something Nice.”
Saving the biggest hits for the fourth and final act is a masterstroke on the part of the producers. Okay, maybe they weren’t so bad as a team after all. Neither “Rumour Has It” or “I Love You” have aged badly, making them among the few select Donna Summer tracks that haven’t been played to death. The inlay photo of Donna sprinkling fairy dust over New York City is very telling. She certainly did cast a spell over many a discotheque back in the day, and even today she is teaching the divas-in-training how it’s done. Only Beyoncé can claim the kind of success that Donna once enjoyed as a strong black woman with a golden, heaven-sent voice. Once Upon A Time is one of those records that seems to get better and better as it plays on, yet consistency and originality aren’t necessarily two of its strong suits. It requires patience, but thankfully, its rewards are there.