She is one of the most-charted female vocalists of all time and the first African-American solo female artist to win a Grammy in the Pop category. She is also a noted AIDS activist and a former United Nations Global Ambassador of Health. Now 80 years old, music icon Dionne Warwick is the subject of Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, a new documentary by David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley.
When we first meet Warwick, it comes as no surprise that she is destined for music. With Cissy Houston as an aunt, the late Whitney Houston as a cousin, soul singer Dee Dee Warwick for a sister, and the manager of a gospel group for a mother, she started her early career singing gospel and back-up vocals. In her twenties, she developed her talent through a collaborative relationship with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The combination of Bacharach and David’s lyrics and Warwick’s vocals resulted in hits such as ‘Walk on By’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ (later covered by Cilla Black), and the eponymous ‘Don’t Make Me Over’. With R&B being seen as ‘race music‘, the success of Warwick’s melodies allowed her to cross the rare industry threshold between R&B and mainstream pop, resulting in a rare achievement for African-American artists at the time while establishing her as a major influence for not only her peers but future artists.
Warwick’s endearing popularity within the music industry is complemented by the documentary’s various interviews with not only fellow musical icons but also close acquaintances. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Quincy Jones set the tone for the film’s high calibre of interviewees but having close friend Gladys Knight and Cissy Houston, not to mention archive interviews of Whitney Houston, talk about Warwick with profound fondness evokes an unexpected feeling of tenderness and poignancy. One of the documentary’s more surprising additions is rapper Snoop Dogg, whose early music career resulted in a surprising reprimand from Warwick, not to mention the film’s standout interview.
However, Heilbroner and Wooley wisely don’t solely focus on her efforts in music. With her contribution to AIDS activism being a significant part of her career, Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over highlights her work with AmFar and her involvement with the United Nations, not to mention her insistence on Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledging the AIDS crisis for the first time. In addition, the filmmakers also take the time to briefly mention the emotional impact of Houston’s tragic passing, which may be considered a sore subject but one that is sensitively managed.
Similar to the 2019 documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown, Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over explores the issue of racism but in Warwick’s case, the story is slightly different. Reminiscing about her early years, Warwick recounts her childhood as an African-American growing in a mixed community in New Jersey implying personal inexperience with racism as a child. But when Bacharach chooses to give her first single to a White male artist, audiences begin to see a change in tone, hinting that this will not be the first time that racism plays a part in her career. In fact, this is later explored when Warwick talks about her time touring Europe (where she is presented as a White woman) and her first time touring around the southern states of America, where she witnesses and experiences segregation. But rather than cowering in fear, her courageous demeanour empowers her to boldly advocate integration and integrity while performing and even ordering lunch – despite being almost jailed for telling a rude waitress to stick her food ‘up her ass’.
In fact, Warwick’s consistent presence of a self-assured woman makes the documentary compelling viewing. Talking candidly while sitting comfortably with oversized glasses, she exudes intelligence, maturity, and confidence that not only makes her a joy to watch but someone who commands your attention with an unspoken authority.
With a focus on her professional achievements, Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is an enjoyable insight into a musical icon. Radiating with positivity and sass, Warwick knows who she is and isn’t afraid to say it.
Director: Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner
Stars: Dionne Warwick, Smokey Robinson, Cissy Houston, Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder, Olivia Newton-John, Elton John
Runtime: 108 minutes