Dionne Warwick on her new documentary and enduring career: "I am and will always be relevant"

The legendary singer and director Dave Wooley spoke to Salon about new film "Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over"

Published September 13, 2021 2:44PM (EDT)

Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over (TIFF)
Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over (TIFF)

It is hard not to want Dionne Warwick to sing everything she says in an interview. The legendary performer, who has an elegant voice that is subtly tinged with melancholy, has been causing listeners to swoon for more than six decades. With the new documentary, "Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over," fans can swoon all over again. 

Directors Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner trace Warwick's career from her first live appearance — singing "Jesus Loves Me" in church at age 6 — to her amateur night at the Apollo Theater, and her early career as a backup singer before she became the famed solo artist. Her collaborations with Hal David and Burt Bacharach made her famous and helped her win a Grammy (for "Do You Know the Way to San Jose"), making her the first Black singer to win in the Pop category.

Not one to mince words, Warwick discusses her experiences on tour in the Jim Crow south, where she turned her back on white audiences, told a waitress off when Warwick was not welcome to eat in a diner, and how she even lectures Snoop Dogg about his misogynistic rap. lyrics. Throughout it all, Warwick, exudes class. She was an advocate for AIDS awareness, releasing a single, "That's What Friends Are For," that earned millions of dollars for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. 

"Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over," focuses on the highlights of Warwick's life and career, touching briefly on the tragedies, from her memories of her niece, Whitney Houston, to her bankruptcy. There is only a mention of Warwick's work with the Psychic Friends Network, and her current status as the Queen of Twitter. But there are plenty of musical clips, interviews with everyone from collaborators Burt Bacharach, Clive Davis, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, as well as Smokey Robinson, Lonnie Bunch, Gloria Estefan, and Bill Clinton, among many, many others.

Warwick and writer/co-director Dave Wooley chatted via zoom with Salon during the Toronto International Film Festival about her career and their new documentary.

Dionne, "Don't Make Me Over," is not just the title of the film, or your hit song, but it's a theme in your life — you took chances. You confronted racism, did humanitarian work, was involved with the Psychic Friends Network, and even became the Queen of Twitter. What can you say about your various reinventions? 

Dionne Warwick: I don't know where the word reinvention came from. Everything you saw, heard, and will hear or see has always been a part of me, and will always be a part of me. It's just a matter of timing. I'm in show business. And that's what timing is all about. When you are supposed to hear it, that's when it reveals itself. So, reinventing — I never did that, and I never will. I am and will always be relevant.

Dave, how did you approach telling Dionne's story, determine what topics to address, and then getting everyone from Bill Clinton to Snoop Dogg to share memories of and encounters with Dionne?

Dave Wooley: The hardest part was that there are at least 10 documentaries in her, and now there are 11 in this woman — so the issue was: which one do you tell? She's accomplished so much in her life. Once I was able to focus on how to structure the story, and contact folks for insight — so friends, business partners, family. It didn't take long once it all came together, but it took five years to actually produce the film. Calling Snoop, it was an immediate yes, when, and where? Calling President Bill Clinton same type of thing. What was exciting was that I didn't know what I would get when I got there, so having President Clinton singing, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," in the same film where Snoop Dogg is singing "Walk on By" had to be a first! [Laughs] 

Warwick: I had no idea about anyone other than me, my aunt Cissy, and Clive Davis. Aside from that, I didn't know what they were doing. They wouldn't tell me!

Wooley: We wanted it to be a surprise. To keep a secret from Dionne is really difficult.

Warwick: I'm very nosy! 

Wooley: It was like throwing a surprise party that was five years in the making without giving any hints. It had to be exciting for her to watch it. 

Warwick: It was quite exciting. 

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Dionne, you always come across as such a class act. You do everything so elegantly and eloquently. How do you approach life?

Warwick: That's what I am — I am elegant and eloquent. [Laughs] How do you explain it? It was the way I was brought up. I was brought up to tell truth, believe in God, and know that when you open your mouth to say anything, know what you are talking about. And if you don't, tell the person you are with that you don't know and will try to find out for them. Just be completely honest and who you are. I tell people I don't want to be anyone else. I like me. I don't want to be anyone but who I am. And I always will be. Whenever you ask me anything, you're getting an opinion from me. I hope you expect to get it, and sometimes you may get something you don't want to hear, but that's what you'll get. That's all I ever knew, and all I ever will know.

Dionne's story is inspiring, Dave. Why make this film now? What was the impetus for this documentary?

Wooley: As a businessman, you look at marketplace and you look for things that don't exist, and that becomes your business. I'm amazed that a theatrical documentary on Dionne Warwick didn't exist. So, my mission was to fill that void and its part of her legacy. There would be millions of people like you who would totally enjoy it. It took five years to make, and that's pretty fast. She's lived the kind of life she lived, and you can't do that quickly. We were fortunate not to have to rush it. As for why now? We need something like this, a ray of light with the racial tension that is going on in America and has been going on, and COVID. It is what the world needs right now.

Dionne, given your experience in the music industry, you have seen the changes — you went from singing background vocals to charting hits during the '60s only to see how tastes changed in the Disco era and later with rap music. You were called a sellout during the early years of your career, but also crossed over, being the first Black artist to win a Grammy for Pop music. What observations do you have about the industry given your range of experience? You have seen it all and adapt and go high when the industry went low.

Warwick: Staying relevant is something everyone has in mind to do. You want to stay as current as you possibly can. My sons grew up in different music era, and I have seven grandchildren, who are now growing up in this musical era. It's helped me to understand the current generation. It's allowing me to understand what is going on musically given the interesting recording these days.

What do you listen to?

Warwick: I listen to my peers. Gladys Knight, and my Brazilian friends. Sometimes I don't have a choice about what I hear, because my nieces and nephews play their music in my home.

Dave, at the end of the documentary, you ask folks about their favorite Dionne song. What would each of you say, and what makes it special?

Wooley: There are so many of her songs that mean something to me. One my mother played was "I Say a Little Prayer" while she was putting on her makeup. As a kid you can visualize that.  She's singing to my mother. What was magical was my mom and Dionne having breakfast, and mom said that was her theme song for getting dressed for work. 

Warwick: All of them. Honestly. Every single one. They are like my children. They got all the love they deserve.

Dionne, is there anyone you still want to record with?

Warwick: I still have yet to get it done — we've been threatening to work together for years — Earth, Wind & Fire.

Dave, what can you say about constructing the film with all the different interviews and footage?

Wooley: This was my debut as a filmmaker, so I had the pleasure of watching many, many documentaries. I took a simplistic approach. I have an entertainment background. At the beginning of the film, there are about two minutes and a lot of people talking [about Dionne] and it's almost like a trailer. But there is a rhythm that pulls you in; that was the structure. If you ever go to a Dionne Warwick concert, she is the same way. I used that model. She comes out and doesn't talk to the audience until a few songs in. 

Warwick: Yeah, whenever I feel like it. That's my approach. 

Wooley: Yeah, she just hits you, and that's the approach I wanted to use as my structure. Get them from the first moment. 

Dionne, how do you approach a song?

Warwick: I have complete respect for composers who write the melody and want to hear the melody. The writer of the lyrics wants to hear the words he wrote. I have no right, actually, to change the melody or the words unless given permission to do so. That is my approach. I try to express what they have done. I refuse to call Hal David a lyricist. I call him a poet. I give you the poetry of his lyric, and, of course, the melodies of Burt's. I try to compose how they feel, or what they were thinking, and express that to you. I'm too young to have lived through any of those experiences! [Laughs] When I was singing "Anyone Who Had a Heart," or any of those songs that Hal David wrote, I had to imagine what he must have been going through. I was much too young to be going through all that stuff myself! 

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dionne Warwick Documentary Don't Make Me Over Interview Movies Toronto International Film Festival