A recent episode of Saturday Night Live included the latest iteration of a recurring sketch, “The Dionne Warwick Talk Show,” which parodies Warwick’s latter-day pop-culture presence as a Twitter wag, taking quizzically bemused, gentle potshots at current music stars. As portrayed by SNL cast member Ego Nwodim, Warwick ran through a rapid succession of interview guests — including fake versions of Miley Cyrus, Jason Mraz, and Post Malone, along with the real Ed Sheeran — and then haughtily declared, “I’m tired of interviewing people who are not icons,” before introducing her final guest, the real Dionne Warwick. The warm and enthusiastic reception she received at her appearance was proof, if you needed it, of how beloved this artist remains. The fake Warwick asked the real Warwick, “Dionne, why are you perfect?” Warwick imperiously responded, “Darling, I’m not perfect. I’m just very, very good.”
Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley’s gushingly uncritical documentary, is a feature-length answer to the question posed to Warwick in that SNL sketch. Heilbroner and Wooley — the latter of whom co-wrote Warwick’s autobiography and children’s book, and scripted an upcoming Warwick biopic — don’t even attempt to make a visually or formally interesting film. This is about as standard as doc packages get. The only slight structural variation on this rigid norm is that the film weirdly opens with a montage of scene clips that are repeated later in extended form, so it basically functions as a self-contained trailer.
You will search in vain for any sort of analysis or insight into Warwick’s work and personal life that goes deeper than her Wikipedia entry. In fact, Wikipedia would probably be more informative about certain details of Warwick’s story. Her family life, for instance, is barely discussed, other than her sons opining about what a great mother she is. Also, her roundly mocked involvement with the Psychic Friends Network, as well as the financial mismanagement that forced her to declare bankruptcy, is similarly just barely touched upon. This all smacks of a thoroughly authorized portrait, one that allows not a millimeter of space for anything not approved by its subject.
Still, this is a pleasant and comfortable watch, and a welcome reminder of the remarkable achievements of this talented artist. Warwick’s 1960’s run of singles with songwriter/producers Burt Bacharach and Hal David include some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, especially 1964’s “Walk On By,” a brilliantly executed, string-laden expression of heartbreak. Warwick’s groundbreaking efforts to collapse the barriers between R&B and pop, expanding the reach of, and career possibilities for, Black singers and musicians, are appropriately celebrated. Also, one can’t help but admire her decision to donate all the profits of her collaborative single “That’s What Friends Are For,” a massive #1 hit in 1985, to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), to Warwick’s own financial detriment. (Even more remarkably, the film credits Warwick with forcing Ronald Reagan to utter the word “AIDS” for the first time in public, in association with this endeavor.) Ultimately, it’ll be left to others to give Dionne Warwick the full, comprehensive appreciation she deserves, but in the meantime, this’ll have to do.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 3.