ABOVE PHOTO: Singer Dionne Warwick, the subject of the documentary film “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” poses for a portrait during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2012, at The Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
By Jake Coyle
The first standing ovation Dionne Warwick ever received was as a 6-year-old, when her reverend grandfather brought her up to the pulpit of the St. Luke’s AME Church in Newark, New Jersey, where she sang “Jesus Loves Me” for a rapt congregation.
Warwick’s most recent standing ovation, though, was last Saturday, at the Toronto International Film Festival after the premiere of the documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over.” Though the festival has been a more muted affair this year because of the pandemic, the 80-year-old Warwick has made the most of it. Over the weekend, she took over the festival’s official Twitter account and posed with “my Sherlock Holmes,” Benedict Cumberbatch.
As the pop-soul legend of songs like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Walk on By,” Warwick has always cut a distinctly un-diva path. And, in an interview, Warwick wondered just why she shouldn’t exude contentedness.
“I had an incredible childhood,” says Warwick, speaking by Zoom. “I love God and God loves me, apparently. He’s kept me happy and healthy and given me the ability to make other people smile with the gift he gave me, my voice. So, what’s the reason not to be happy?”
“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” which is up for sale at the festival, is directed by her longtime business partner Dave Wooley (who co-authored Warwick’s 2010 autobiography) and David Heilbroner (“The Newburgh Sting”). It’s an affectionate tribute to the Grammy-winning vocalist that may be light on personal details. (There’s little on her two marriages, twice divorced, to Bill Elliott, or her relationship with Sammy Davis Jr.) But the documentary delves more fully into Warwick’s music, from her collaborations with Hal David and Burt Bacharach to her star-studded recording of “That’s What Friends Are For” to benefit AIDS research.
Elton John calls her one of the greatest female singers of all time. Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys and Gladys Knight all pay their respects, as does Snoop Dogg, who recalls when Warwick, a critic of gangsta rap, summoned him, Tupac and Suge Knight to her home at 7 a.m. one morning to talk about violence and misogyny in lyrics. “We got out-gangsta’ed that day,” says Snoop.
Perhaps most importantly, the documentary makes the case for Warwick as a pioneering crossover artist. In it, she discusses performing for segregated audiences in Jim Crow South while touring with Sam Cooke in the ’60s. In 1969, for “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Warwick became the first Black solo female artist to win a pop award at the Grammys.
“I never understood putting people in boxes. I feel so fortunate that that’s something that never happened to me. Music is something universal. It appeals to all kinds of people at all times. The same eight notes in the scale are what we all sing,” says Warwick. “Why differentiate me? It was because [of] the color of my skin, nothing more. It never kept me out of the top field.”
To the filmmakers, Warwick’s legacy is as a trailblazer.
“She left the world a more inclusive place,” says Heilbroner. “She left the world with a bunch of artists who rose because of her example.”
“She did it with elegance. She did it with class. She did it with integrity,” says Wooley, who sat beside Warwick at the premiere. “It’s so good to see a woman like Dionne Warwick, 80 years old, get to smell her own flowers, while she’s alive and with us. Often these types of docs are made after somebody has left us.”
Warwick is not only still around, she’s planning to tour this fall.
“This thing called vocal cords? They’re muscles. They need exercise,” Warwick says, running her hand against her neck. “And I missed my audiences. I hope they missed me.”
Warwick’s life has lately taken some unlikely turns. During the pandemic, while stuck at home, she began tweeting regularly, bringing “Auntie Dionne” to a new generation of music listeners and pop stars.
“I’m having the best time,” says Warwick. “I’ve met some very interesting people. I made a lot of wonderful friends. I think I was the answer to what’s missing on Twitter: a grown-up.”
Her newfound social-media presence has brought her in contact with Chance the Rapper, the Weeknd and Taylor Swift. Those interactions, she says, have opened up “a whole new realm of people.” Warwick hopes to record with the Weekend. She already has with Chance.
“I said, ’Well, OK, Chance the Rapper. I am Dionne the Singer,” says Warwick. “He’s a wonderful young man.”
For Warwick, the lyric “Keep smiling, Keep shining” from “That’s What Friends Are For” has become something like a mantra.
“Smiling is the true answer. Smiling, you don’t get the wrinkles. Frown, you get a wrinkle,” says Warwick. “And I am not going to get a wrinkle anywhere. I refuse.”
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