Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner
Writer: Dave Wooley
By Joan Amenn
**Dionne Warwick is the recipient of the Toronto Film Festival’s Special Recognition Award this year.**
The legendary singer, activist, and fashion icon Dionne Warwick looks back at her incredible career with “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (2021). Even if you think you don’t know the lady’s music, this film will have you humming along until you realize, yes you do. With fifty-six charted hits and six Grammys, her story is a mix of glamour and gritty determination as she fought through the racial barriers of the music industry.
While this documentary by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner does touch on Warwick’s early years singing in her church choir in East Orange, New Jersey, it really takes off with the beginnings of her career. Warwick always seemed to be level-headed in how she approached her work, as we see her going to college and singing back up part-time in the recording studios of New York City. This was in the 1950’s and although the film does not stress the point, seeing an African American woman pursuing higher education at that time is striking. If you didn’t know before then, you will quickly come to understand that Dionne Warwick was an exceptional woman long before she stepped on a stage to perform.
And then came the year 1957, when Dionne and her small group of former back up singer friends took the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater for Amateur Night. Needless to say, after that performance Dionne never went back to singing with a gospel choir again. She joined the other legends that had taken the stage at the Apollo such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday.
But hers was not going to be an easy path to fame and fortune. Segregation was still the law in the south of the United States, which meant touring in that region was problematic at best, life-threatening at worst for African American musicians. With amazing courage and dignity, Warwick refused to accept any law that demeaned or separated her in any way from the rest of society. This sometimes meant some hasty exits from performance venues, but she never backed down.
Warwick is a delightful storyteller and she obviously relishes recounting her first European tour when none other than Marlene Dietrich took her under her wing in Paris and introduced her to “couture.” Marlene and Dionne in Paris is the buddy film we never knew we needed but we only get a tantalizing nibble at how much fun that must have been. Warwick became a stunning fashion icon with many magazine’s covers to her credit.
Of course, Warwick is chiefly known for her collaboration with the songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David. While the two had a genius for touching on the emotions of their time in songs like, “Don’t Make Me Over” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” Dionne had a nearly supernatural gift for interpreting them with her voice. But they are not the only people she has worked with over the years. Barry Gibb tells a great story of how hard it was to get her to record the song, “Heartbreaker” which he had written especially for her. One would think that being a Bee Gee would have given him some clout but the lady proved to be very choosey.
“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” is a fun and sometimes touching look at an incredible life. From her activism for AIDS research to her advocacy for education, Warwick was and is a formidable woman. Oh, and she recently joined Twitter and has quickly reached over five hundred thousand followers with her blend of sass and forthrightness. She is a treasure and it is wonderful to enjoy her company with this film.