Dionne Warwick is sitting on a bed in her South Orange, New Jersey, home. A calendar with a fluffy white Pomeranian bounding across a beach hangs on the wall behind her, providing the room’s sole embellishment. The bedroom offers a telling glimpse into the legendary singer’s world — minimalist, no-nonsense and infectiously positive.
For the first time in her 66-year career, the alto with the unmistakably husky voice behind such classics as “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and “Walk on By” is getting the doc treatment with Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, a nod to her first solo single of the same name. Directed by her longtime business partner Dave Wooley and Oscar-nominated documentarian David Heilbroner (Traffic Stop), the film traces her arc from her early gospel roots in New Jersey to becoming one of the most charted female vocalists of all time.
“I was bulldozed into [the film] by Dave the same way he did with my book,” says Warwick, now 80, with a laugh about why she acquiesced. (Wooley co-wrote with Warwick 2010’s My Life, as I See It: An Autobiography, which served as a basis for the film.) “It was about time that everybody got to really know me without surmising who I am and what I am. The press has a tendency to say and write things that they feel they want said and written. The only way you’re going to get the true essence of anything, especially when it comes to a documentary, is everything coming from my mouth. Nobody knows my life better than I do.”
Along the way, Don’t Make Me Over, which has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11, follows such defining Warwick moments as her touring the Jim Crow South with Sam Cooke during the 1960s, being discovered by hitmaker Burt Bacharach and her friendship with screen icon Marlene Dietrich, who introduced her to haute couture.
“She broke ground with this grace and poise,” Heilbroner notes of Warwick. “And I remember growing up as a kid and always feeling like she inhabited this interesting place in pop culture between Black and white. She caught criticism from both sides, which is what you get when you’re a trailblazer.”
Growing up in a musical family — her mother was manager of the Drinkard Singers and her father was a sometime record promoter — Warwick sang with her sister Dee Dee Warwick and their aunt Cissy Houston in the New Hope Baptist Church Choir in Newark. The trio later formed the musical act the Gospelaires, which sang backup vocals on the hit single “Just One Look.”
“I was kind of forced into that. I didn’t want to do this. This is not my vocation of choice,” she explains. “I was going to teach. I went to college for that reason. I had a hit record, which kind of demanded my becoming a performer. And so I kind of backdoored into entertainment. It chose me. And, because subsequently as the years went on and recordings became more and more appreciated, I have settled into who I am and what I do. And I happen to love it.”
Bacharach discovered her in 1962 when she was singing background for The Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce.” Warwick then signed as a solo artist with Bacharach and Hal David’s production company. “I’ve been spoiled rotten with the master lyricist in the world, and it’s Hal David,” she says.
Over the ensuing years, she became a songstress, paving the way for her cousin Whitney Houston and others like Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys, “who stand on Dionne’s shoulders,” says Wooley. (Houston appears in archive footage in Don’t Make Me Over.)
Whitney Houston’s death in 2012 affected Warwick deeply. “Not that we saw each other [much in the years before her death]. She was living in Atlanta, and I was in either Los Angeles or New Jersey. It wasn’t that she could leave her home and come to my house like she would in the earlier days. But, the cellphone calls, we had an awful lot of,” says Warwick. “I always said that Whitney was my daughter I never had. She was my baby, and not only her. I had another baby who is also my cousin, Felicia. And, the two of them were like two peas in a pod. They were always together. And whenever I took one, I took the other. There’s never any separations with any of my cousins. My babies, they were on the road with me when I could bring them out with me and they weren’t in school.”
These days, Warwick has courted a new generation in the most unexpected place: Twitter. With a style that bucks the cynical trappings of the platform, she boasts more than 500,000 followers and has become such a sensation that “Jack Dorsey said to me, ‘You have no idea how refreshing it is now for me to even look at tweets and see how positive the babies have become,’ ” Warwick says. “And, it’s so true. Now, all of a sudden, they’re smiling, and I think they’re very cautious about what they say. Because I will let them know, ‘Hey, chill out. That’s not what we’re on this thing for. We got some nice things to say to each other. And if you want to ask a question, then do that. Just do it with a little bit of diplomacy here.’ “
Twitter has become just another way for Warwick to use her influence to spread her message of kindness. She is consumed by the latest Britney Spears conservatorship news.
“I feel so bad for that baby — to be treated the way she had to be treated just did not make sense,” says Warwick. “You cannot take control of somebody’s life in that manner. I got to know her through my son, [record producer] Damon [Elliott]. Damon produced a few tracks for her. I did a CD of duets with my female peers, and I requested Britney to do it. She was going to do it with me, and then she got cold feet. She backed out of it, which is OK.”
Another key part of her legacy is her activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community. In 1985, she recorded the single “That’s What Friends Are For” with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. It has raised millions for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and will do so in perpetuity. It also became an anthem for those hoping to combat the stigma of AIDS at the time and replace it with kindness and empathy. “That’s what her spirit and her energy is all about, bringing people together as one,” says Wooley. “She was doing it way back in the ’60s. And she’s [now] the Twitter queen. She has been relevant through each decade. She never became an oldie-but-goodie act.”
More recently, she performed a benefit co-chaired by Barack Obama for the Center on Halsted, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center in Chicago. She also drew praise for taking on DaBaby on Twitter over his disparaging comments about gay men and HIV during a performance at a Miami festival in July. “He didn’t have to do that,” she says. “It just doesn’t make sense to be ugly because that’s the only word I can come up with right now: Why be ugly when beauty is available?”
For now, the woman who was twice married to (and twice divorced from) American actor and jazz musician William Elliott, with whom she had Damon and brother David Elliott, is content to ride into the next decade solo.
Says Warwick: “I’ve been on my own much too long, and to share my space now, I don’t think I’m really able to do that. I do have companionship, of course. But aside from that, it’s like, ‘Here we are right now, and thank you very much. Good night.’ That’s enough for me, really.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.