“At first I was afraid, I was petrified …”
I don’t care if you’re a die-hard metal or country music fan, you’re lying to yourself if you say you don’t know those beginning lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s anthem “I Will Survive.” Chances are, you know them better than you’re willing to admit (even if you’re a so-called “real man”).
That song — apart from initially being a rallying cry of survival for women everywhere back in the late ’70s and early ’80s — became a source of inspiration for anyone who faced any form of struggle or adversity. Just watch the new Gloria Gaynor documentary, “I Will Survive,” and you’ll see. For the 40-plus years that that song has been a part of our consciousness, you will be positively stunned at just how far-reaching that song is when it comes to encouraging self-confidence, empowerment, and perseverance.
But this piece isn’t just about that iconic tune. It’s about a journey (actually, two — one about the incredible life of Gloria Gaynor, and the other about a filmmaker who grew up here, went off to see the world, and would eventually find himself co-producing and co-editing “I Will Survive”).
Kieran Healy grew up on the Vineyard, went to Tisbury Elementary and MVRHS, graduating in 1996, and then left for college and the world.
“My memories of growing up on the Island could fill a book. But my strongest feelings stem from the love of the arts and of nature that were fostered there, and have persisted throughout my life,” he says. “The way the community rallies around those in need is remarkable.” Healy now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I make it back to the Vineyard, you know, every couple of years. My stepmother still lives there. I hike around Cedar Tree Neck every time I go back.”
Even a brief description from Healy about a few of his favorite Vineyard memories illuminates why filmmaking is exactly what he should be doing with his life:
“Getting into mischief with my friends in whichever woods we played in. Biking everywhere. And how much quieter it is there than anywhere else I’ve lived. The sounds of peeper frogs and songbirds, instead of the hum of thousands of air conditioners or the drone of highway traffic …”
Sounds like it should be part of a treatment for a screenplay or something.
So how exactly did he become involved in this documentary about the former disco queen?
Healy says it started off almost by accident.
“The director, Betsy Schechter, whom I was working with on a TV show for MTV International, got a call to film Gloria Gaynor making this gospel album in Nashville, Tenn. She was in Mexico, it wasn’t like it was a planned thing. It was sort of just on the spur of the moment. She flew to Nashville, hired a couple of cameramen to go in there and shoot what was going on, and then realized there’s something here — like this is more than just a documentary about the making of an album. A lot more. There’s a much deeper story to tell. So she came back with some of this footage, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, cool.’ And then she would occasionally go back, get some more footage, get some more of the story. I’d take a look, we’d talk about it, put together some things, and slowly but surely, the documentary started coming together.”
But Healy is quick to point out that this documentary isn’t your typical “my music fell out of favor, and this is my comeback.”
“She’s been through a lot of tragedy, and she’s come out of it with such a level of grace and inspiration. It’s not about the fall of somebody, it’s not about somebody who lost everything, or looking into the tragedy of life. It’s looking at the tragedies in our lives, and drawing inspiration and lessons from them so that you can move forward,” Healy says. “Which I thought was a really important thing to put out there. We don’t see a lot of that these days. Her tragedies, her trauma, the things that she’s gone through, that both have not only informed her life, but her art (or vice versa). And what’s incredible is that she harbors no bitterness or antipathy toward what’s happened to her.”
I actually watched this documentary. And it was the most heartening thing I’ve seen in years. Apart from Gloria’s voice still being in top form, in addition to her bravely venturing into the gospel genre with all the odds seemingly against her, the unwavering support and love she has from her manager, Stephanie Gold — not to mention all the musicians involved in the creation of the now Grammy awardwinning (in the Roots Gospel Album category) “Testimony” — her attitude about her past, and her vision for her future (she’ll be 80 in September) is one to emulate when faced with life’s struggles.
And speaking of struggles, Kieran Healy encountered a pretty devastating one while in the midst of making this film: he was diagnosed with lymphoma, during the peak of COVID.
“I needed to completely torch my immune system and replace it. They did immunotherapy on top of the chemo, which basically taught my immune system to kill the cancer. The side effect, of course, is that I had no cells to kill other viruses, or pathogens of any kind. So I was basically having to quarantine myself for about six straight months.”
Though it may have been somewhat “convenient” for something so potentially tragic to happen during a time when we were all used to the whole quarantine thing, his immunity was so compromised that a common cold sent him to the emergency room.
“The immunotherapy killed off the cancer, and I actually just got scans in May that were completely clear. So I’m in good shape,” Healy says.
It should be noted that Healy literally is the “poster child” for Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Cancer Center’s Rapid Diagnosis.
It wasn’t lost on Healy how the timing of his involvement with “I Will Survive” happened to coincide with a life-threatening diagnosis. While he certainly knew the song prior to his involvement, it obviously took on a different meaning after all that he went through.
I will admit it is very difficult to not delve more into this wonderful documentary about a woman who survived many tragedies and trauma during her life. The way Healy and the rest of the production team captured the appreciative and humble nature of Gloria Gaynor sets a pretty high bar for all other documentaries to traverse. As previously alluded to, this is not a “woe is me” depiction. She acknowledges her past, but doesn’t wear the negatives on her sleeve.
Healy sums it up this way, “She tends to look forward. I think that’s her ‘secret sauce.’ She loves telling stories, she loves talking about the past. And for her this is just sort of another version of her telling her story. So, for her, this documentary isn’t cathartic, because she’s already had her catharsis, but a private one. It’s more a new way for her to tell her story. Because she’s done the music, she’s done the interviews. This is just having the documentary bring it all together into one package, her past, present, and her potential future.”
Currently, “I Will Survive” is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Those involved with the film expect wider distribution once people see how good it is.