There is no question though, that Warwick was and is an essential icon
There was a point in time just this year when Dionne Warwick was poised to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. At 80-years-young, she even kickstarted her Twitter account again where she instantly appealed to millennials a fraction of her age with her now iconic tweets, like this one: “The Weeknd is next. Why? It’s not even spelled correctly?”
What she was essentially saying by reigniting her own celebrity and reminding us of her timeless value, was that she is not to be forgotten. And that’s exactly what appears to be the point of the new documentary, Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over.
Dionne Warwick attends the “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” Premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 11, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Had directors David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley’s film been released around the time that Warwick was more pointedly advocating to be inducted into this year’s prestigious Hall of Fame class, it would be easy to assume that the film was just part of her campaign. Why? Because it comes across as a 90-minute proposal on why people should know the singer-songwriter is so great—and not much else.
Many viewers will find that sufficient because, of course, it is extraordinary to be taken by the hand for a pristine tour of the life of one of the greatest voices to ever do it and to watch her reflect on all her career accomplishments.
In 1980, she was the first African American to win both R&B and pop Grammys in the same year for “Déjà Vu” and “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” She also stood up for herself against racists when performing the Chitlin’ Circuit early in her career — though the documentary awkwardly shows this as it shoehorns contemporary photos of Black Lives Matter protests that are entirely unnecessary, especially given the swath of images collected for the film.
Warwick donated all the proceeds for “That’s What Friends are For,” an estimated tens of millions of dollars, to AIDS research and even confronted Snoop Dogg and his boys about his misogynistic lyrics at her own house. The rapper, who is among many luminaries—the staggering list includes Alicia Keys, Elton John, Glady Knight, Carlos Santana, Bill Clinton and Olivia Newton-John—interviewed giving Warwick her flowers in the documentary, even said, “We got out-gangsta’ed that day.”
But there is no question that Warwick was and is an essential icon, even if the Hall of Fame has yet to recognize it. What has largely remained a mystery is the woman behind the music, behind the activism and behind her enormously talented family which includes her cousin, the late Whitney Houston. Don’t Make Me Over skims over elements of her life, like her two-week marriage to William Elliott. “We got a Mexican divorce,” she simply states in the film. Then, two years later, she ends up remarrying him and bearing their two sons, Damon and David, who are also interviewed in the film—glowing about their loving mother.
The film also glosses over Warwick’s time on the Psycho Friends Hotline, with which she became synonymous in the 90s. Her fans of a certain age would certainly be familiar with this era of her celebrity—and maybe even this era alone. She filed for bankruptcy while, as her friend Gloria Estefan puts it in this documentary, refusing to accept any royalties for “That’s What Friends are For,” her biggest money-making song.
At one point in 1991, Warwick’s own charity was reportedly bouncing checks. So, where was the money really going?
Don’t Make Me Over doesn’t really address any of that. In fact, Heilbroner and Wooley just move forward to other affairs along Warwick’s yellow brick road. When her sons speak in the film, they say that everyone makes mistakes but Warwick’s were exacerbated because she’s a celebrity. That’s a totally fair statement on which the film doesn’t bother to expand. By its end, Warwick is feted by amfAR, who she’s supported for several decades. The organization’s CEO, Kevin Robert Frost, validates how much of a defender of the cause she has been in a rousing speech.
It’s a very tidy portrait of a woman who remains so elusive, even after Houston’s death nearly brought her to her knees. “I miss her terribly,” she states in the documentary. Nearly 11 years after her autobiography, My Life as I See It, Warwick doesn’t entirely seem comfortable letting her audience in once again. And she seems content with the fact that people are still going to say and write what they want to. “As long as you spell my name right,” she says with a satisfied smile.
Just don’t dismiss how much she’s given to music, especially when it comes to next year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame list, Don’t Make Me Over seems to reiterate. Here’s hoping for that.
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