“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
In the era of the “authorized documentary,” whereby filmmakers get access to a living legend (and their friends, family and colleagues) in exchange for a film that’s going to be almost unfailingly glowing, it’s incumbent upon documentarians to find some element of interest to take the place of scandal, criticism or provocation.
Thankfully, the makers of “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” have such a fascinating subject — and who gives interviews that are equal parts warm, self-deprecating, no-nonsense and unapologetic — that the movie almost never feels like a greatest-hits informercial. Warwick is one of the all-time great vocalists, yes, but she actively intersected her career with the world outside of show business, from the civil rights movement to the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
If the film teaches viewers under the age of 35 that Warwick is more than just a must-follow on Twitter, then it will have done its job, but even lifelong fans are likely to come away from “Don’t Make Me Over” with new information about, or at least deeper respect for, her career.
She recounts her own life story, from growing up in New Jersey, singing publicly for the first time at the age of six (in her grandfather’s church) and watching her aunt Cissy Houston — who lived with the Warwicks; Dionne describes her as being more of a big sister — achieve success with the gospel combo the Drinkard Singers before venturing out herself as a demo singer while attending college.
One of Warwick’s early gigs was singing back-up on The Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce,” which brought her to the attention of the up-and-coming songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who quickly signed her and made her the signature voice of their compositions. The relationship had a bumpy start: She recorded “Make It Easy on Yourself,” only to see the song go to Jerry Butler. After she heard his version on the radio, she told Bacharach and David never to make her over again, which in turn inspired her own first hit.
The film makes the point that Warwick’s collegiate study of music enabled her to navigate the tricky time signatures and key changes of a Bacharach song, and both her sheer vocal talent and her skill at sight-reading is acknowledged in the film by colleagues (Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson) and fans (Alicia Keys, Olivia Newton-John) alike.
As with any Black performer who toured the American South in the 1960s, Warwick has horror stories from the road, including having the police pull over Sam Cooke’s tour bus after Warwick told off a racist waitress, and having a show shut down when she refused to stop inserting “tell your ma/tell your pa/we’re gonna integrate Arkansas” into “What’d I Say.” She also straddled the worlds of R&B and white-dominated pop in a way that would pave a road for many Black artists to follow, including her beloved niece Whitney Houston.
Directors Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner don’t ever rewrite the rules of the talking-head documentary, but their use of vintage footage and photographs keep the narrative moving along briskly and offer powerful moments, whether Warwick is remembering how Marlene Dietrich (an old friend of Bacharach’s) overhauled her wardrobe prior to her Paris debut, breaking down while singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at a show following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, or reminiscing with Clive Davis about the resuscitation of her career in the ’80s at his then-new Arista Records with hits like “I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “Heartbreaker.” (The latter tune, written for Warwick by the Brothers Gibb, was one of many subsequent hits that, the singer admits, she adamantly opposed recording until she was talked into it.)
One of the highlights of “Don’t Make Me Over” involves Warwick using her clout and her presence to call in Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight for a sit-down about the misogyny of hip-hop lyrics. She opened the meeting with, “Call me a bitch,” and proceeded to tell the young stars that they had a responsibility to the women they might one day marry and the daughters they might one day have. (Snoop vividly recalls the fear and respect that he and his cohorts felt for Warwick, and that the summit was like “being called into your grandma’s house, with the plastic on the good furniture, and a dish of candy on the table that you weren’t even going to reach for.”)
More moments like that would certainly add some zest to the film, which mostly skates by her personal life — her husband and sons aren’t mentioned until about an hour in — and only briefly mentions the whole “Psychic Friends” moment, although Warwick does get to lament, after an accountant mismanaged her money, “Why can General Motors declare bankruptcy but not Dionne Warwick?” But you won’t hear about her falling-out and later reconciliation with Bacharach or any other untidy moments that surely must have occurred over the course of her 80 years. (They also don’t get into “Solid Gold” or “Valley of the Dolls,” but hey, it’s a documentary, not a miniseries.)
The film rounds out its look at her life with the recording of “That’s What Friends Are For,” a huge fund-raiser for AmFAR at a time when Warwick and Elizabeth Taylor were among the few major celebrities willing to speak publicly about the AIDS crisis. (Warwick claims that she’s the person who finally got Ronald Reagan to say the word “AIDS” out loud, at a press conference, and whether or not that’s actually true, it totally scans.)
Formally speaking, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” isn’t nearly as much of a groundbreaker as its subject, but that subject has lived such a rich life — and recorded so many unforgettable songs — that the film is, ultimately, as pleasurable as hearing a vintage Warwick hit on the radio.
“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” is available to stream on HBO Max.