‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over’: Film Review | TIFF 2021

Dave Wooley, who has co-written a memoir and a kids’ book with Dionne Warwick, makes his film debut as co-director of a doc celebrating her career.

The queen of ornately melodic easy listening gets her due in Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s tribute to the singer who ensured that Burt Bacharach and Hal David would enter the canon of American songwriters. The kind of fluffy pop bio-doc one turns to not to learn anything but to bathe in warm nostalgia, the film clearly says nothing its subject doesn’t want said. (Wooley co-wrote Warwick’s autobiography and her children’s book Say A Little Prayer.) But it contains enough enjoyable anecdotes to keep fans happy, and, devoting much of its final third to nonmusical activities, reminds us of the singer’s activism, especially her early recognition of the AIDS crisis.

The New Jersey granddaughter of a minister, Warwick had the same path to performing as many Black singers of her generation. She sang “Jesus Loves Me” from her grandfather’s pulpit at the age of 6; today, she proudly remembers that as her first standing ovation.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

The Bottom Line

A gushing recap of a pioneering pop career.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Directors: Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner

Screenwriter: Dave Wooley

1 hour 35 minutes

We get a film clip of the 21 year-old Dionne soloing with a gospel choir and hear a bit about her family’s place in this world — her aunt Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney, was a core member of the family group that helped launch Warwick’s career — but the movie is eager to get to the secular world. And what better place for that than Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Few viewers will need to be told of the Apollo’s importance or its legendarily discerning audience, but the movie sets the stage anyway, bringing out Smokey Robinson and Chuck Jackson to remind us how easy it is to fail on that stage. Dionne succeeded, of course, winning Amateur Night in 1957. Soon she was working steadily in a group of backup singers, helping pay for school by singing on other people’s records.

Bacharach heard her during a session with the Drifters, and thought she looked like someone who could be a star. He and David signed her up and started recording demos, one of which she believed would be her first proper single. Recounting an origin story she’s clearly told many times, Warwick recalls how she complained to Bacharach and David when they remade her “Make It Easy on Yourself” with singer Jerry Butler; her complaint to them, “Don’t make me over!,” led directly to the writing of her first hit.

Wooley and Heilbroner aren’t much concerned with placing the blockbuster career that followed in any broader pop context (you’d never know the British Invasion upended the world as she was becoming a star), except to the extent that it shows her as exceptional: Several interviewees marvel at how at home she was in the white-bread world of the pop charts.

Other Black artists succeeded there too, of course, and she was on tour with one of them, Sam Cooke, when she first witnessed segregation in the South. Telling a story in which she refused to play by a racist diner’s rules, the film shows a side of Warwick that casual admirers may not know. The singer is fond of characterizing this impulse in loose-cannon terms (“I told you, I’m crazy!”), but most viewers will call it standing up for herself and her values.

The film spends a minute or two connecting Warwick’s experiences during the Martin Luther King era to today’s battles with white supremacy; later it will talk in much lighter terms about her public dispute with rappers who called women “bitches.” (Snoop Dogg tells a funny story about being put in his place at a 7 a.m. meeting at Warwick’s estate.) But the doc is not done with the musical successes yet. In between the general effusiveness, interviewees from Bacharach to Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys and Gladys Knight offer insights about her skill as a trained musician, her striking presence onstage, and her immediately recognizable voice.

Viewers get plenty of time with that voice and the many hits it sang before the film turns to a record that did the world some good: “That’s What Friends Are For,” a collaborative benefit single that we’re told has raised tens of millions of dollars over the years for AIDS research. The film is vague about how the record came about (Who proposed it? Was there anything that made this cause especially personal for her?), and it’s even less interested in the details of other, sad episodes after the singer’s reign on the charts ended. Emphasizing the positive, it follows Warwick to events held in her honor by amfAR, at a school that bears her name, and at the Apollo, which placed her on its Walk of Fame. The style of pop that made her famous may be more subject than most to the whims of musical fashion, but Don’t Make Me Over shows Warwick’s music is far from forgotten.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production company: Wooley Entertainment
Directors: Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner
Screenwriter-Producer: Dave Wooley
Executive producers: Raymond Schinazi, Geralyn Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully, Michelle Freeman, Wes Hall
Directors of photography: Tom Bergmann, Thaddeus Wadleigh
Editor: Stephen P. Perry
Composer: Bill Jolly
Sales: Endeavor Content, Mister Smith Entertainment

1 hour 35 minutes