Dave Wooley did not mind that Dionne Warwick hesitated to let him do a movie about her when he mentioned the idea five years ago.
“When Dionne says she’s really not sure about something, that’s how you know you got a good idea,” he explains. “She said the same thing to Burt Bacharach about ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose’. She said the same thing to Barry Gibb about ‘Heartbreaker.’ Her not liking something is a good sign. I’m in good company.”
This fall, the first-time director released Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, a thrilling tribute to a woman who changed the world. The documentary premiered in Chicago this month at Opening Night of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Black Harvest Film Festival, where it was named Best Feature.
In addition to winning Best Feature at Black Harvest, Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over won the Audience award at New Jersey’s Montclair Film Festival and was named first runner-up at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s a clip from the Toronto World Premiere, featuring Wooley with the legendary artist…
Don’t Make Me Over recounts Dionne Warwick’s life through the eyes of immediate family members, former US presidents, chart-topping musical artists and a seemingly endless string of hits including “What the World Needs Now”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Alfie”, and “Walk On By.”
“Dionne is a genius,” says Wooley. “She has a Masters degree in music. She can sight-read charts. She has perfect pitch. And she still has that gospel as a root. That’s a magical combination.”
Ms. Warwick’s unwavering righteousness, colossal generosity and unifying spirit complement the soundtrack. She told a South Carolina waitress who tried to enforce a discriminatory seating policy to shove a breakfast order “up her butt.” She enraged an Arkansas sheriff by singing about integration. She turned her back on the white crowd in a segregated venue because she wanted to see “the people who look like me.” She insisted that President Reagan use the word “AIDS” to describe HIV. She inspired President Clinton to take a road trip so that he could tell people that yes, he knew the way to San Jose. She “out-gangstered” Snoop Dogg and several of his fellow rappers while criticizing their misogynistic lyrics.
No doubt, this is a story that America needs to hear right now, and Wooley is exceptionally suited to tell it.
Dave Wooley began his career in the entertainment industry as a teenage drummer, gigging and recording with professionals like gospel singer Cissy Houston, who is Dionne Warwick’s aunt and Whitney Huston’s mother. A sharp, friendly and articulate Harlem native, he moved from music into promotions and spent seven years producing events for Julius Erving’s company. He met Ms. Warwick when he was in his early 30s.
“Dionne wanted to talk to Julius about promoting a tour featuring her, Patti LeBelle and Gladys Knight,” he recalls. “After hearing the pitch, Julius told her it sounds great, and then introduced me and said this is the president of the company, Dave Wooley, and he makes the decisions.”
The young executive immediately bonded with the legendary artist. “Dionne was extremely warm,” he recalls. “I felt like I knew her. I had the utmost respect for her because, in terms of phrasing and tone, there is no singer — maybe Nat King Cole — that can match up with Dionne Warwick. We forged a beautiful friendship that turned into business associates to business partners to… I guess now we’re friends and family.”
Ms. Warwick enhances Don’t Make Me Over with several first-hand accounts of her own. She comes off as an incredibly funny, down-to-earth and charming woman with a royal touch of class. Like someone you meet in a restaurant who turns out to be the most interesting person on earth.
There are no scandals or meltdowns in the life of Dionne Warwick. She her siblings were raised by a devoted mother and father in a middle class neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey. She began performing at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark when she was six years old. Standing on a stack of books in order to reach the microphone, she sang, “Jesus Loves Me,” and received standing ovation.
The closest her life has come to celebrity spectacle is probably when she declared bankruptcy in 2013 after appearing on commercials for The Psychic network in the 90s. Regarding that decision, she says with a smile, “if General Motors can declare bankruptcy, so can Dionne Warwick.”
On the other hand, she teamed up with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight in 1986 to record Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager’s That’s What Friends Are For. The effort was intended to raise money for the American Foundation For AIDS Research (AmFAR). Officially credited to Dionne & Friends, the song charted for 23 weeks, peaking at number one. The gesture was worth tens of millions of dollars and helped motivate President Regan to name her US Ambassador of Health the following year.
Let’s take a trip back to 1986 and enjoy this iconic collaboration for a moment…
When it came time to ask people to appear in Don’t Make Me Over, Wooley hit up the famous contacts he had made through 30 years in the business. “I said, ‘I’m producing and directing a film on Dionne Warwick,’” he recalls. The typical response to a request for an interview was “When, where and count me in.” Those making an appearance include Alicia Keyes, Smokey Robinson, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, President Bill Clinton and Snoop Dogg, who is nothing short of hilarious.
The greatest challenge in writing the script, according to Wooley, was “trying to figure out what documentary to write.” By his estimate, Dionne Warwick’s life is worthy of “at least ten.” As co-author of her autobiography, “My Life As I See It,” he had “a lot of great anecdotes” to choose from. Once he began to narrow it down, the task became “really simple.”
“There’s a dot dot dot after Dionne Warwick,” he explains. “I mean, when you think about how one woman, who happens to be African American, changed the world, this will empower people. Dionne is a transformational leader. The key to leaders is not to have followers but to create other good leaders, and that’s what she has done, and I think this film will show that.”