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 catalogue 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 her own 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 the way Warwick influenced their lives.
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The singer grew up in the Church singing gospel music in New Jersey. The documentary isn’t afraid to display old photos and footage of Warwick’s time singing in the church or performing with gospel group the Drinkard Sisters. The crowning achievement of the group was winning amatuer 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 where she learned to become a more proficient musician by reading, writing music and playing piano.
After singing background for the four tops, she was discovered by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which led her to signing to Scepter records. After recording a song for the duo, she heard it on the radio with another singer and Ms. Warwick 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 from. Sadly, others have tried to test her boundaries.
Warwick speaks sternly about her refusal to be made into something she isn’t and did not tolerate disrespect in any form. After her first few hits with Bacharach and David, Warwick went on tour of the south and was almost arrested for telling a waitress to shove the food up her when they weren’t allowed to sit in a whites only restaurant. She played for segregated crowds and refused to placate to the white audience just because she was told to. Unfortunately, these macro-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 make-over, 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 Warwick was exposed to such high fashion. After that encounter, Warwick only wore the best clothes and inadvertently became a sex symbol.
Warwicks biggest contributions are her music, but also her activism. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was decimating the LGBTQ community, and she is one of the first celebrities to speak out about what’s happening. She saw the effects the virus had on the gay community and was one of the first to speak publicly about the virus and it’s effects on society. She donated 100% of the proceeds from the song to AIDS research. CEO of The Foundation for AIDS research (Amfar), Kevin Robert Frost speaks highly of Warwick for standing up and speaking out about the virus when no one else would. With such a public bullseye on the epidemic, Warwick forced the government’s hand and made President Ronald Regan to 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 into the singer’s life. Sure, she’s had trials and tribulations throughout her career (as all artist do), but Heilbroner and Wooley choose to focus on her triumphs, through her lens. 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 lover her just as she is.