‘Diane Warren: Relentless’ Review: Documentary Sheds Some Light on the Prolific Songwriter

The multiple Oscar-nominee’s process, personal struggles and triumphs are spotlighted

"Diane Warren: Relentless"
"Diane Warren: Relentless" (Credit: SXSW)

The best documentaries offer a new perspective on something familiar or an introduction to something we know little about. In the case of “Diane Warren: Relentless,” a documentary chronicling the working and personal life, struggles and triumphs of the prolific songwriter and multiple Oscar-nominee, there’s an interesting mix of both. Warren has written over 400 songs, is the most Oscar-nominated songwriter with 16 nominations and worked with many major singers and bands like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Aerosmith, and yet has managed to remain elusive as a public figure.

“Diane Warren: Relentless” does the work of unfurling the songwriter’s life and work to give Warren her flowers. It also doesn’t shy away from probing beyond the songwriter’s work and looks at her life with empathetic, compelling honesty. The result is an otherwise-by-the-numbers music documentary that stands out because of the subject at the heart of the film.

The film starts by greeting us with what we know already: Warren’s singular personality and work ethic. Talking head interviews from artists like Cher, Toni Braxton and LeAnn Rimes corroborate the unique nature of Warren’s style as a songwriter and her seemingly eccentric personality. We hear pop stars talk about meeting Warren at her house, in the studio, their flustered first impressions and their gratitude and amazement at her talent.

It’s a standard but smart way to lead us into what the rest of the documentary dives into, which is the life of Warren herself. We learn more about her supportive father, disapproving mother, and the zeal and energy she had for songwriting from a young age. We also learn about her dyed-in-the-wool rebellious streak. Warren admits at one point that she loves to shatter expectations. It’s an introduction that is especially compelling, particularly if you aren’t familiar with Warren outside of her work as a songwriter. Using old photos and interviews with friends and family we get a more expansive vision of Warren, the person.

There are, of course, many clips showcasing work from Warren’s expansive catalog. We see her rise from the 1980s and are treated to music video snippets and expository text letting us know more info about the song we’re listening to/seeing (more often than not, they’re Academy Award-nominated). It’s a nice way to showcase the sheer volume of work Warren has produced, but can feel like a cop-out at times.

When the documentary starts to zero in on Warren’s personal life and goes beyond her music, it shines. There are many insightful, moving and funny moments spent with Warren as we get to know her through one-on-one interviews, following her around her studio, and hearing about her past struggles and experiences. The tension between Warren and her mother, who never understood the songwriter’s love of music, is a critical thread that winds throughout the film. This relationship underscores Warren’s work and life, making it an especially potent element of the movie.

Warren claims early on in that, despite writing numerous love songs, she’s never really been in love. She compares the experience to method acting. “I’m just the character feeling these things,” she remarks. It’s a point that comes back into contention later and becomes clear that Warren’s songs can be personal.

Warren talks about “Til It Happens to You” and how it was about her own experience with sexual assault. It’s a powerful moment that suggests Warren’s songwriting is much more personal than she initially lets on. Another song that is revealed as a personal piece is “Because You Loved Me,” which Warren wrote for her father, who was a constant, supportive presence in her life. It’s a deeply compelling, fascinating glimpse into what parts of Warren’s inner life come out in her work.

One of the most surprising and moving things about Warren that’s revealed is her great love of animals. We meet her beloved cat Mouse early on and learn about her birds and other pets she’s had over the years. Warren and Mouse’s bond is strong and when we see Mouse’s health decline and see her pass it’s an emotional moment. “She mourned that kind of love,” one friend remarks. It’s a moment that gives the film a deeper dimension and impact, briefly letting us into Warren’s elusive inner life.

Making a documentary about a subject that’s well-known for their work but whose true self is difficult to access is a challenging task. Director Bess Kargman handles the task deftly, providing an intimate portrait of an artist whose songs have touched countless people. “Diane Warren: Relentless” does a remarkable job at making its subject go from arm’s length to up close and personal, making for a moving, enjoyable watch.


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