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TIFF 2021 Review: The Story of an Icon in ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over’

TIFF 2021 Review: The Story of an Icon in ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over’

Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s documentary Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is lovely.

For over 60 years, Dionne Warwick has been the perfect combination of talent, elegance, and style. Even now at 80, Ms. Warwick is a Gen Z favorite due to her dynamic presence on Twitter.

Warwick’s life story in the documentary is told through interviews with Smokey Robinson, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, and even former US President Bill Clinton.

The story begins with a middle-class family from Newark, New Jersey. Warwick’s father was a Pullman porter, and her mother worked at an electrical factory. The family moved from Newark to East Orange, New Jersey, a multiethnic community not far from New York City.

Family and music were everything. Warwick’s grandfather was a pastor with his own church, and Warwick started her singing in the choir. Gospel icon Cissy Houston was Warwick’s aunt, and Whitney Houston was her cousin. In 1957, Warwick found the courage to perform at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and she won.

Warwick’s voice, many say, was touched by God, but she did not take her talent for granted. She started taking gigs as a backup singer in high school and used the money she earned to pay for college and grad school. She earned her doctorate and master’s degrees in music from Hartt College in Hartford, Connecticut.  

Warwick started working as a professional singer and found herself on tour on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” As a middle-class kid from an integrated community, she had never dealt with Jim Crow nonsense. Smokey Robinson reveals how Warwick always spoke up against the racial injustices heaped upon Black musicians, who would often disrupt the system while they were on tour even when it was risky. The best parts of the documentary are when Warwick recounts the times when she advocated for herself without apologies. Warwick’s musical marriage with Burt Bacharach and Hal David was truly magical.

The film dives deep into the history of American music. In the 1960s, “race music” was where Black recording artists were placed and “pop music” was where white musicians were placed — and no one crossed over. Dominant white culture held the false belief that “race music” might contaminate white folks, so measures were taken to keep artists separate. Like so many Black female recording artists before her, Warwick gained popularity on tour in Europe before her talent was recognized in the United States. In 1968, Warwick was the first Black female artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Female Vocalist.

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A 60-year career has so many twists and turns. Warwick was on the front lines of battling ignorance during the AIDS epidemic. She rallied her friends Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Elton John together to record a cover of “That’s What Friends Are For,” which became an international hit and raised over a million dollars for amfAR for AIDS research and advocacy.

A hilarious high point of this gorgeous film is when Snoop Dogg and Warwick talk about the time “Auntie Dionne” invited Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Suge Knight to her house at 7 a.m. to give them a talking-to about their disrespecting women in their “gangsta rap” music. 

The directors do allow vintage clips of Warwick from live performances to run long, which at first is refreshing but toward the end is a bit redundant. And, the opening montage telegraphs what is going to happen in the film by revealing some of the best quotes from various musicians that are replayed later in the documentary. 

What the film does well is provide outstanding interviews with surprisingly diverse public figures, showing the power of Warwick’s universal appeal. The documentary also spotlights how Warwick and many artists of her generation have always played pivotal roles in destroying systemic racism by the sheer force of their talent. In a toxic culture where so many of our beloved Black artists die young, witnessing Warwick’s grit, determination, and resilience as she has lived her dream is truly inspirational. 

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is a feast for the soul that will have you singing along to the movie. This film is a delicious treat not to be missed.  

For more of our reviews from TIFF check out the following:

The Guilty

Mothering Sunday

Hold Your Fire

Attica

To Kill The Beast

A Banquet

Kicking Blood

Beba

Night Raiders

Encounter

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