Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is an apt title for a documentary by David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley on the life of iconic singer and legend Dionne Warwick. She stands out from the other singing divas because her catalog is the most diverse. With her cross-genre appeal, her music touched all people, everywhere.
Gen Z knows Warwick based on her social media persona (as she’s called “Auntie Dionne” on Twitter), so this film couldn’t have come at a better time, as a new generation of youngsters will learn why she is iconic in every way. The film is at its most authentic when Warwick gets to tell her story in her own words–and she is having a blast doing so.
The documentary begins with a sweeping shot of the landmark Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY. They intend to honor Warwick with a plaque on the Apollo Star Walk of Fame. The scene is cut with intermittent clips of admirers and friends of the legendary singer, including Gladys Knight, Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, Elton John and others, who speak about how Warwick influenced their lives.
The singer grew up in New Jersey, singing gospel music in the church. The documentary isn’t afraid to display old photos and footage of Warwick’s time singing in the church or performing with the Drinkard Sisters’ gospel group. The crowning achievement of the group was winning amateur night at the Apollo. After being noticed on the Apollo stage, she made a living as a background singer, using that to pay her way through college. She learned to become a more proficient musician by reading, writing music, and playing the piano.
After singing background for the Four Tops, she was discovered by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which led her to sign to Scepter records. After recording a song for the duo, she heard it on the radio with another singer. Ms. Warwick was not having it. That is when she told them, “Don’t make me over.” And that is where the inspiration for the song “Don’t Make Me Over” came to be. Sadly, others have tried to test her boundaries.
Warwick speaks sternly about her refusal to be made into something she isn’t, and does not tolerate disrespect in any form. After her first few hits with Bacharach and David, Warwick went on a tour of the south. She was nearly arrested for telling a white waitress to shove the food up her ass when told she wasn’t allowed to sit in a whites-only restaurant. She played for segregated crowds and refused to appease the white audience just because she was told to do so.
Unfortunately, the micro-aggressions don’t end there. When on tour in Europe, her album was being promoted with a white woman on the cover. She took it all in stride, but once again had to let them know that she will always be true to herself and what you get.
The diva singer admits that she did give in to one such makeover by a golden age Hollywood actress. When on tour in Paris, Marlene Dietrich acted as a stage manager for her show by setting up sound, lighting, and staging. When the two were looking over the wardrobe for the show, Dietrich thought the selection was trash and took Warwick shopping for couture clothes. This was the first time the singer was exposed to such high fashion. After that encounter, Warwick only wore the best clothes and inadvertently became a sex symbol.
Warwick’s most notable contribution besides her music is her activism. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic decimated the LGBTQ community, and she was one of the first celebrities to speak out about what’s happening. She donated 100% of the proceeds from the song to AIDS research. In interview clips, The Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) CEO, Kevin Robert Frost, speaks highly of Warwick for standing up and speaking out about the virus when no one else would. With such a bullseye on the epidemic, Warwick forced the government’s hand and made President Ronald Regan publicly acknowledge the crisis.
The film shows authentic footage and photos from Warwick’s life and experiences from her beginnings in the church through today, giving the audience an intimate portrait of the singer’s life. Sure, she’s had trials and tribulations throughout her career (as all artists do). But Heilbroner and Wooley chose to focus on her triumphs. The viewer will see a woman who accomplished so much over her nearly 60-year career, and still has more to give. The singer has a tour lined up in the US and Europe, beginning in late 2021. She isn’t afraid of a challenge and will never back down as long as she is still singing and touring. Don’t try to make her over. Her fans love her the way she is.
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