The documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” was shown in the United States for the first time as part of the Montclair Film Festival, Oct. 23, and co-director Dave Wooley said after the screening that the film currently has no distribution deal, which means I can’t tell you when and where you will be able to see it yourself. This is a shame, because I strongly recommend that you check it out, once you get a chance.
“Don’t Make Me Over” makes the case for Warwick as one of the most underappreciated musicians of her generation via some great vintage performance clips, and commentary — often in a tone of awed admiration — from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Smokey Robinson, Carlos Santana and Alicia Keys. And though Warwick’s music always has appealed to mainstream audiences, the documentary paints her as an artistic maverick who made music in her own distinctive style — standing up to producers and record company executives when she had to — and as a stubborn activist who took important stands on Civil Rights and AIDS.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters in particular should watch this movie. I bet it would inspire more than a few of them to start voting for her.
Warwick, 80 — who grew up in East Orange and now lives in South Orange — appeared at the screening (which took place at the Wellmont Theater). She and Wooley were interviewed for about 20 minutes onstage by Stephen Colbert, after the film.
“It’s an honor to sit down with the Queen of Twitter,” said Colbert, referring to Warwick’s newfound popularity on that platform. She talked, among other things, about her gospel heroes; taking her first vacation from performing, ever, during the pandemic; her upcoming collaboration with Chance the Rapper, whom she met through Twitter; and wanting to work with Earth, Wind & Fire. And she remembered a voice teacher at her school, early on, advising her to refrain from taking singing lessons, since they would only interfere with her natural talent.
She appeared to be enjoying her latest moment in the spotlight immensely.
The documentary itself underscores Warwick’s unique personality. She comes off as a diva who is, somehow, as humble and approachable as she is regal. The film touches on her birth into a famous gospel family and explores her life-changing teaming with the songwriting team of composer Burt Bacharach (who is interviewed) and the late lyricist Hal David. It thoroughly covers her huge successes of the ’60s, her comeback in the ’80s, and her “That’s What Friends Are For” charity single (also featuring Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight), which raised millions of dollars for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Wonderful stories along the way include Warwick remembering how Marlene Dietrich took her shopping, when she performed in Paris for the first time, and got her to adopt a more glamorous look; and the time that she berated gangsta-rappers about the misogyny in their lyrics, and invited some of them to her house, to talk it over.
“Not much scares us, but this got us shook,” says Snoop Dogg in the movie, likening Warwick to a stern, larger-than-life family matriarch who could not be questioned, under any circumstances, and saying that the meeting actually did lead to him making changes in his songwriting.
To their credit, Wooley and co-director David Heilbroner do mention Warwick’s questionable involvement with the Psychic Friends Network, and her 2014 declaration of bankruptcy. But they don’t explore these subjects in any depth. There is a little in the movie about Warwick’s cousin, Whitney Houston; there could have been more. And the film doesn’t say much about Warwick’s personal life, or her sister Dee Dee Warwick (a hitmaking singer in her own right).
But at 95 minutes, it’s not skimpy, either. It’s just that with a 60-year career and a rich, eight-decade life to cover, there is only so much you can fit in.
“One of the hardest parts of the movie,” Wooley told Colbert, “was to figure out what documentary to make, because there’s at least 10 more documentaries in this woman.”
For more on Warwick, visit officialdionnewarwick.com.
For more on the film, visit mistersmithent.com
For more on the Montclair Film Festival, which continues through Oct. 30, visit montclairfilm.org.
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