Wilmington University alumnus and adjunct Dave Wooley’s documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” premiered on CNN on Jan. 1, 2023, and continues to stream on HBO Max.
The film he wrote, produced and co-directed (with David Heilbroner) recalls moments from Warwick’s childhood, where she sang at her grandfather’s church in Newark, New Jersey, and her collaboration with legendary songwriting team Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The retrospective also explores Warwick’s crossover from R&B to pop, a monumental feat in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and social unrest over the Vietnam War persisted. Warwick’s music exploded in Europe, though her first album was released under the guise of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white female artist. That she was the first African American woman to win a Grammy in the pop category was significant, given the nation’s deep-seated racial turmoil.
Capturing Warwick’s life and 60-plus-year music career, Wooley and Heilbroner blended archival footage and conversations with superstars like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones, Cissy Houston, Burt Bacharach, Elton John, Gladys Knight, Snoop Dogg, and producer Clive Davis — among others. Wooley also interviewed Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Never-before-seen archival interviews with the late Whitney Houston (Warwick’s cousin) are prominent in the film, and Wooley interviewed singer Olivia Newton-John before her passing. There’s an interesting discussion of German-born actress-singer Marlene Dietrich, who nurtured Warwick when she first performed in Paris in 1963 and introduced the singer to haute couture. Wooley’s daughters, Veda and Davina Wooley, both WilmU grads, were associate producers on the film, which took five years to make.
Warwick also was an AIDS activist who spoke out about the epidemic when most wouldn’t and spearheaded the recording of “That’s What Friends Are For,” which generated millions for AIDS research.
The retrospective garnered several notable reviews. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Warwick, as a singer, had such a spectacular run that just seeing it all play out, and watching the clips that have been assembled of her spellbinding performances on stage and television, is more than satisfying, especially because the movie truly understands what a transformational figure she was.” The Hollywood Reporter said the documentary contained enjoyable anecdotes and devoted its final third to non-musical activities, reminding us “of the singer’s activism, especially her early recognition of the AIDS crisis.” Victor Stiff of That Shelf wrote, “What elevates it above similar docs is its dazzling star and soul-rocking archival material. Warwick features prominently throughout the doc, speaking directly to the camera and talking us through clips. If you’ve never experienced a Warwick interview, let me tell you, it’s a sight to behold. Warwick always calls it as she sees it, but her harsh words come from a place of love.”
Warwick, as a singer, had such a spectacular run that just seeing it all play out, and watching the clips that have been assembled of her spellbinding performances on stage and television, is more than satisfying, especially because the movie truly understands what a transformational figure she was.”
-The Hollywood Reporter
“I wanted to make a film that was genuinely symbolic of Dionne’s (60+ years) stellar career,” Wooley told CNN’s Alexis Garfield and Janelle Davis. “However, people also needed to know that she was more than a hit maker. She’s a transformational leader. A real leader does not create followers; a real leader creates other real leaders. The people featured in this film, from former president Bill Clinton to Snoop Dogg, all say how Dionne made them better individuals.”
At the time of this writing, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had won the Best Feature Documentary category at the Annapolis Film Festival, the Bronzelens Audience Award at the BronzeLens Film Festival (Atlanta), Montclair Film Festival’s Documentary Feature Award (New Jersey), and the Special Tribute Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. On New Year’s Day, CNN reported that the film’s premiere debuted at #1 among cable news viewers in the demographic of adults aged 25-54.
However, people also needed to know that she was more than a hit maker. She’s a transformational leader. A real leader does not create followers; a real leader creates other real leaders. The people featured in this film, from former president Bill Clinton to Snoop Dogg, all say how Dionne made them better individuals.”
Like most documentaries, there was a certain amount of selling to get it produced. “One of the most challenging aspects of this fantastic five-year journey was convincing others that this was a worthy cause,” Wooley told CNN. “A documentary film about an iconic, global African American woman who is still with us could work, and there was a market for ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over.’ I didn’t take no for an answer. When someone tells me the word ‘no,’ I hear opportunities. I felt that if we made it, they would watch it. With prayer, being relentless eventually paid off.”
Wooley, who has been a WilmU College of Business adjunct for over 20 years, has enjoyed a prolific career as an author, teacher, concert promoter, filmmaker and entrepreneur. He rose to prominence as the only African American man in the nation to be awarded exclusive pay-per-view and closed-circuit television broadcasting rights for several states to the 1988 Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks match, the largest fight in history at the time. (He was featured in the 2021 documentary series “Mike Tyson: The Knockout” as a result.) Wooley produced “The Clash of the Legends,” a 1992 pay-per-view TV hoopfest that pitted retired NBA stars Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against each other, and he worked with megastars like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Run-DMC, Loretta Lynn and Tony Bennett. Wooley’s rewarding collaboration with Warwick has lasted for decades, and the duo co-wrote her autobiography and children’s book, “Say A Little Prayer.”
More recently, Wooley was named talent and content advisor for the Biden/Harris Inaugural Committee. And on March 1, 2022, The City of Wilmington named a street after him, designating the corner of 16th and Claymont streets, where he launched his producing career in 1985 at a nightclub called Ambrosia. “David F. Wooley Way” stands as a testament to a life well lived.