Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2021. Endeavor Content, Mister Smith Entertainment, Wooley Entertainment. Screenplay by Dave Wooley. Cinematography by Tom Bergmann, Thaddeus Wadleigh. Produced by Dave Wooley. Music by Deborah Mannis-Gardner. Film Editing by Stephen Perry.
Another great talent of popular music gets her due in this exuberantly adoring documentary. Dionne Warwick was the child of modestly middle-class parents from East Orange, New Jersey who began singing as a teenager, recording demos for record companies that led to her signing her own contract. Her smooth vocals and elegant demeanor were the perfect match with the song writing talents of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who were responsible for major hits like Walk On By, Alfie, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, and I Say A Little Prayer among others, all of which contributed to her becoming a superstar on the charts. By the late seventies, Warwick was ready to throw in the towel, unable to connect with the disco era, but was pulled back into the game by Clive Davis who signed her to Arista and continued her success throughout the eighties. Outside of her performing life, she was an early advocate for AIDS research, donating the royalties of her biggest hit single That’s What Friends Are For to the cause, and more recently has gained a new popularity for her take-no-prisoners humour on Twitter. The bullet points of her biography are arranged in tidy and concise order here, with Warwick herself sitting down before the camera to relate her memories of her life and career, at points joined by friends from the industry who sit beside her as she recalls the joys and hardships along the way: Warwick’s career hit its stride just after the end of segregation policies that saw earlier acts like Ella Fitzgerald forbidden to stay at the hotels that they played at, but she still experienced some dicey situations on her first tours of the south, and broke new ground with her accomplishments, including being the first black woman to win a Grammy in the pop category. Photos and footage are accompanied by commentary from those who knew her then, or have felt her inspiration since, and Warwick’s most memorable tunes are generously applied to the soundtrack. This film is more valuable as an archival record for future generations to remember the artist than as an incisive, thematically motived documentary, glossing over as it does the darker aspects of her experiences (like her bankruptcy) or ignoring them altogether (including the accusations made in Kevin MacDonald’s Whitney Houston documentary about her sister Dee Dee, who is not mentioned here at all). This is all likely in deference to the fact that the subject and so many of her peers are still with us at the time of the film’s production, but it does lend a sense of naivety to what is otherwise an appropriately enthusiastic celebration of a very deserving subject.
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021