Review: ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,’ starring Dionne Warwick

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over”

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” a group of African American and white people (and a few Latinos), who are celebrities, historians or philanthropists, discuss the life and career of entertainer Dionne Warwick.

Culture Clash: In her long career, Dionne Warwick battled against racism, misogynistic rap music and prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Dionne Warwick fans, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographies of entertainers who first made their mark in the 1960s.

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” is both a retrospective and an uplifting story about one of America’s most treasured entertainers/activists who is both celebrated and sometimes underrated for her breakthroughs. This documentary doesn’t uncover new information, but it’s a thoroughly engaging and comprehensive look at the life and career of the talented, sassy and outspoken Dionne Warwick. It would be a mistake to think that this movie won’t have much appeal to young people, because “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has meaningful themes and life lessons that can relatable to people of any generation.

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Warwick also participated in the making of the 2018 PBS documentary “Dionne Warwick: Then Came You,” which focuses mainly on Warwick’s music, whereas “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes not just her music career but it also takes a much deeper dive into her personal life and her activism. Warwick’s 2010 memoir “My Life, as I See It” also covers a lot of the same topics as these documentaries. In other words, there’s no shortage of Warwick’s first-hand accounts of her life story.

Fortunately, Warwick is a great raconteur with amusing wit and candid self-awareness. There could be dozens of documentaries about her, and she’s the type of person who will give something unique and different every time in her documentary interviews. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” which unfolds in chronological order, has the expected telling of her experiences with fame and the challenges she’s encountered when people pressured her to be something that she wasn’t but she stayed true to herself.

Born in 1940, in East Orange, New Jersey, she describes her childhood in East Orange and nearby Newark as being in a family that was “middle-class and working.” Her father had various jobs, including being a Pullman porter, a music promoter and an accountant. Her mother was an electrical factory worker who also managed a gospel singing group called the Drinkard Sisters, which consisted of relatives on her mother’s side of the family. Warwick’s maternal aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney Houston) was a member of the Drinkard Sisters. Cissy Houston is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

With all this music talent in one family, it was inevitable that Warwick would pursue a music career too. She says her first performance was at the age of 6, when she sang “Jesus Loves Me” in church. Warwick also says that it was also the first time she got a standing ovation. “Gospel will never be far from what I do,” Warwick comments.

Warwick grew up during an era when much of the U.S. had legal racial segregation, but she says in the documentary that East Orange was a very integrated city. “It was like the United Nations,” she quips. It might be why she didn’t want to be confined to doing music that was labeled as being for any particular race. During the early years of her career, racial segregation also extended to the music industry, which marketed pop music as “music for white people” and R&B music as “music for black people.” Radio station playlists also followed these narrow-minded race divisions.

It didn’t take long for people to notice her talent. In 1957, she performed with the Imperials during Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. They won that contest. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes archival footage of that fateful performance.

She then became a backup singer, with credits that include the Drifters’ 1962 songs “When My Little Girl Is Singing” and “Mexican Divorce,” as well as Jerry Butler’s 1961 hit “Make It Easy on Yourself.” She stood out as a backup singer and was eventually signed to a record deal with Scepter Records as a solo singer. Warwick comments, “Thank God for my daddy, who negotiated my contract.” Warwick’s debut album, “Presenting Dionne Warwick,” was released in 1963.

The documentary repeats a fairly well-known story about how Warwick told the music producers of “Make It Easy on Yourself” that she didn’t like the results. That experience later became the inspiration for her 1962 song “Don’t Make Me Over,” which is a statement of Warwick’s refusal to be anybody but herself. It was an issue that would come up many times when people questioned her choices in songs, performing style or even her hairstyles and clothing.

For example, Warwick says in the documentary that when she was on tour with Sam Cooke, she ignored his advice to never turn her back to a white audience when she was singing. At shows where white people and black people would attend but would be racially segregated inside the venue, Warwick says she made a point of turning to sing to the black people, which meant that sometimes her back would be turned to the white people in the audience. It was Warwick’s way of telling the black people audience that even though they were being treated like second-class citizens by racist laws, the black people in the audience mattered to her.

Warwick also tells a story about the touring party going to a racially segregated restaurant, where a waitress took their menu order, but refused to let anyone in touring party sit in the restaurant. When Warwick cancelled the order because of this racist discrimination, the waitress then called the police on the touring party because Warwick didn’t talk to the waitress in a subservient way. Warwick says that Cooke got angry at Warwick because he thought Warwick defending herself from racism would get the entire touring party arrested.

Later in the documentary, Warwick says of the civil unrest and bigotry problems in the United States and elsewhere: “All of this craziness that happened in the ’60s, unfortunately, is happening again. What has changed? Nothing. But there is hope. Love is the answer.”

Warwick’s hit collaborations with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David are duly noted in the documentary. Bacharach is one of the people interviewed in the film. David passed away in 2012, at age 91. The collaborations between Warwick, Bacharach and David resulted in Warwick’s biggest hits in the 1960s, including “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

In the documentary, Warwick talks about how her first major international success happened in Europe, but even her introduction to European audiences was marred by racism. Scepter Records put a photo of a white model on the cover of Warwick’s 1963 single “This Empty Place” when it was released in Europe, because the record company didn’t think European music buyers would respond to the song as well if Warwick’s photo was on the cover.

Warwick remembers European audiences being surprised and accepting when they would see her perform live for the first time and find out what she really liked like. She comments in the documentary: “Yeah, I ain’t white. I’m a tempting, teasing brown.”

Warwick adds, “My career really blossomed in Europe. It was exciting. I was treated like a little princess. It was a lot of fun.” She also talks about how actress/singer Marlene Dietrich became a mentor when Warwick spent time in Paris. Warwick says that Dietrich introduced her to haute couture fashion and encouraged Warwick to wear these types of designer clothes on stage.

With success comes inevitable criticism. Warwick often had to contend with people who would accuse her of “trying to be white” or “not being black enough” because her songs didn’t fit the expected R&B mold. (It’s the same criticism that her cousin Whitney Houston experienced when she became an instant crossover hit artist in the 1980s.) Not for nothing, Warwick became the first black artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal performance, for 1968’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” It was also the first of her six Grammy Awards.

Any major entertainer whose career lasts for more than 10 years has ebbs and flows. Warwick says that in the 1970s, when her career was in a slump, Arista Records founder Clive Davis (one of the people interviewed in the documentary) convinced her not to quit the music business and signed her to a record deal. In 1979, she had a huge comeback hit with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” which earned her another Grammy Award.

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” also includes a big segment on Warwick’s activism for AIDS causes. Several people in the documentary credit her with being one of the first celebrities to become an AIDS activist. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John—her song partners in the 1985 mega-smash hit “That’s What Friends Are For” (another Grammy winner and a fundraising song for the AIDS charity amfAR)—share their thoughts on the experience and the impact that the song had for AIDS causes.

John says of Warwick: “She’s a hero of mine. She was one of the first people in the music business to speak up about [AIDS].” The documentary also shows Warwick meeting with amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost and designer/philanthropist Kenneth Cole at amfAR headquarters in New York City. Frost says that Warwick’s AIDS fundraising (including donating all of her royalties from “That’s What Friends Are For”) made a crucial difference in improving healthcare, research and other assistance for people with AIDS.

In the 1990s, Warwick spoke out against rappers having misogynistic lyrics in their music, even though she got some backlash for it. Snoop Dogg talks about how a meeting that he and other rappers had with Warwick in her home made such an impact on him, he decided to no longer have degrading lyrics about women in his songs. Snoop Dogg says the turning point was when Warwick got him to really think about how he would feel if someone used those misogynistic words on her or any of his female family members.

“Not much scares us,” Snoop Dogg comments on that pivotal meeting, “but this had us shook! We were the most gangsta you could be. But that day at Dionne Warwick’s, we got out-gangsta’d.” Warwick says of that experience of having a group of gangsta rappers in her home: “My sons thought I was out of my mind.”

Warwick also talks about her personal life, including briefly dating Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s (whom she also calls her “mentor” when she first performed in Las Vegas), and having a volatile marriage to actor/jazz musician William Elliott. The first time they married in 1966, they got divorced less than a year later. They remarried in 1967 and then got divorced again in 1975.

The former couple’s sons David Elliott and Damon Elliot are interviewed in the documentary. David mentions that his mother would sometimes divert her tour, just so she could go to one of his Little League games. “Those were special times,” he comments. Damon adds, “She’s the everything of the family.”

Friends and relatives say Warwick was devastated by the deaths of Whitney Houston (in 2012) and Whitney and Bobby Brown’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown (in 2015), who both died of drowning-related causes in a bathtub. The documentary includes a clip of Warwick’s speech at Whitney’s funeral. In a documentary interview, Warwick says she misses Whitney and Bobbi Kristina tremendously and thinks about them every day. Warwick is philosophical when she says that whatever time people have on Earth is best used in service of others.

Warwick also opens up about filing for bankruptcy in 2013, which her son Damon says happened because of “having an accountant who screws you over.” Warwick comments, “If General Motors can file for bankruptcy, why not Dionne Warwick?” There’s also acknowledgement that Warwick 1990s stint as a spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network was a low point in her career.” Her son David says of her association with the Psychic Friends Network, “Unfortunately, it overshadowed her as a singer.”

As expected in a celebrity documentary such as “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” other notable people in the film have nothing but praise for the celebrity. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton mentions that when he was courting his wife Hillary during a trip to Northern California, he wanted to visit San Jose, because of Warwick’s song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” He also says that when he was president of the U.S. in the 1990s, Warwick always pushed him to approve more federal funds for AIDS causes, and he appreciated how she always told him that whatever was given was “never enough.”

Barry Gibb talks about how he and Arista Records founder Davis had to work hard to convince Warwick to record the Gibb-written song “Heartbreaker,” which became a big hit for her in 1982. Gibb says, “If you want to make a great record, make a Dionne Warwick record.” Former U.S. congressman Charles Rangel gives the type of gushing comment that many of the other interviewee say in the documentary: “She is truly one of the greatest ambassadors of good will.”

Other interviewees in the documentary, whose screen time is really just reduced to sound bites, include Jesse Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Melissa Manchester, Chuck Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson, Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell, radio DJ Jerry Blavat and National Museum of African American History director Lonnie Bunch. Because of this over-abundance of praise, the movie often veers into looking more like a tribute. However, because the documentary doesn’t gloss over some of Warwick’s low points in her life, and she talks about these low points, it’s saved from being a superficial, fluffy film.

Even when Warwick makes a self-congratulatory statement in the documentary, such as, “I am a messenger. I am carrying messages of love and hope,” it’s not too grandiose in the context of this film. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has plenty of evidence of Warwick’s lifelong actions for worthy humanitarian causes. Most of all, the documentary is testament to Warwick being an example of someone who can have staying power in showbiz without having to invent any personas and without compromising who she really is.

CNN will premiere “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” on January 1, 2023.

2022 American Music Awards: Taylor Swift is the top winner

November 20, 2022

The following is a press release from ABC:

Taylor Swift at the 2022 American Music Awards at the the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Nvoember 20, 2022 (Photo courtesy of ABC)

Taylor Swift broke her own record of the most wins of any artist in the history of the American Music Awards Sunday night by clinching the top spot in the winner’s circle with six wins at the “2022 American Music Awards” (AMAs), to bring her total count to 40 wins. The year’s hottest night in music represents top achievements in music determined by the fans, for the fans. Hosted by Wayne Brady, the thrilling evening filled with world premiere performances and pop-culture moments aired live on ABC from the Microsoft Theater at L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles.

Show highlights included the following:

  •  Eight-time AMA nominee P!NK skated in from the streets of Los Angeles for an epic start to the AMAs, opening the show with a powerful world premiere performance of her brand-new single “Never Gonna Not Dance Again.” She later graced the stage for a moving and powerful performance of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” dedicated to the inspirational life and career of 10-time AMA winner Olivia Newton-John.
  • This year’s AMA host Wayne Brady bantered with the audience, singing about how he prepared to host the AMAs in his opening monologue. Brady also tapped into his “Dancing With The Stars” skills to perform a number alongside his current DWTS partner, Witney Carson. Later in the show, Brady tapped into members of his audience including Niecy Nash-Betts for a random selection of words, which he used to improvise a rap on stage.
  • Two-time nominee Bebe Rexha made her U.S. television performance debut of her global smash hit “I’m Good (Blue)” in an out of this world futuristic performance.
  • Global superstar and Favorite Female Latin Artist winner Anitta made her AMAs stage debut with her smash hit “Envolver” and was joined by two-time AMA winner Missy Elliott who surprised fans hitting the stage to join Anitta for “Lobby.” The two danced through a hotel lobby celebrating the first-ever performance of their smash hit.
  • Country superstar, 17-time AMA winner and all-time Favorite Country Album record-holder Carrie Underwood flew through the theater on a neon orb to the stage to perform her hittrack “Crazy Angels.”
  • First-time nominee GloRilla made her AMAs stage debut with a surprise performance alongside last year’s AMA host Cardi B for their hit “Tomorrow 2.”
  • Imagine Dragons hit the stage for a fiery performance, singing a medley of their hits including “Bones.” The band was later joined by Atlanta rapper J.I.D. for a striking performance of their duo hit “Enemy.”
  • Multiplatinum rapper Lil Baby performed a medley of his smash hits “California Breeze” and “In a Minute” in a suave performance on the AMAs stage.
  • Artist, songwriter and actor Yola took the stage to perform her powerful original song “Break the Bough,” named the American Music Awards SONG OF SOUL, a spotlight moment that highlights an artist that uses music to invoke social change. Yola’s colorful performance showcased her vocal abilities and star power.
  • New Artist of the Year winner Dove Cameron made her AMAs stage debut in a theatrical performance of her hit single “Boyfriend.”
  • Presented by longtime friend Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie received his 18th AMA award with the prestigious Icon Award. Later in the evening, stars joined together to honor Richie with tribute performances, including two-time AMA winner Stevie Wonder and two-time AMA nominee Charlie Puth,who performed a medley of Richie’s hit songs complete with dueling pianos and scat singing.
  • Superstars Jimmie Allen, Ari Lennox, Yola, Muni Long, Melissa Ethridge, Dustin Lynch, and Smokey Robinson joined Wonder and Puth on the stage for an epic surprise recreation of the 1986 AMAs performance of “We Are The World,” a nostalgic highlight of the evening with Lionel joining the group on stage.
  • Adding the musical connectivity to a night filled with superstar performances, tributes and pop culture moments, iconic DJ, producer/rapper and philanthropist D-Nice was the resident 2022 AMAs House DJ.
  • In tribute to the life and career of Loretta Lynn, country star Jimmie Allen took the stage for a quick rendition of one of her greatest hits.
  • Host Wayne Brady led a moment of tribute to the late rapper Takeoff, speaking to his life, career and success in the music industry.

Winner Highlights of the “2022 American Music Awards”:

  • Taylor Swift broke her own record with six AMA wins, making the 40-time winner the most decorated artist in AMAs history. Her album “Red (Taylor’s Version)” earned the awards for Favorite Country Album, Favorite Pop Album and Favorite Music Video, while Swift also won Favorite Female Pop Artist, Favorite Female Country Artist and Artist of the Year. In 2013, Swift won the AMA for Favorite Country Album for the first version of her album “Red.”
  • Last year’s Artist of the Year winners BTS took home two AMAs this year, including the first-ever AMA for Favorite K-Pop Artist.
  • Six-time nominee this year Beyoncé won two awards tonight for Favorite Female R&B Artist and Favorite R&B Album for her latest album, “Renaissance.”
  • Ghost took home the first-ever AMA for Favorite Rock Album for their latest album “Impera.”
  • This year’s most-nominated artist, Bad Bunny, took home two AMAs for Favorite Male Latin Artist, Favorite Latin Album for “Un Verano Sin Ti.”
  • Elton John won his first AMA since 1998 for Collaboration of the Year for his hit “Cold Heart – PNAU Remix” with Dua Lipa.
    First-time AMA nominee Dove Cameron took home this year’s New Artist of the Year award.
  • Anitta, a first-time nominee this year, won the AMA for Favorite Female Latin Artist.

Presenters throughout the night included Dan + Shay, Dustin Lynch, Ellie Goulding, Jessie James Decker, Jimmie Allen, Karrueche Tran, Kelly Rowland, Kim Petras, Liza Koshy, Latto, Meghan Trainor, Melissa Etheridge, Niecy Nash-Betts, Roselyn Sanchez, Sabrina Carpenter, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Smokey Robinson.


2022 AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS WINNERS
Artist of the Year: Taylor Swift
New Artist of the Year: Dove Cameron
Collaboration of the Year: Elton John & Dua Lipa “Cold Heart – PNAU Remix”
Favorite Touring Artist: Coldplay
Favorite Music Video: Taylor Swift “All Too Well: The Short Film”
Favorite Male Pop Artist: Harry Styles
Favorite Female Pop Artist: Taylor Swift
Favorite Pop Duo or Group: BTS
Favorite Pop Album: Taylor Swift “Red (Taylor’s Version)”
Favorite Pop Song: Harry Styles “As It Was”
Favorite Male Country Artist: Morgan Wallen
Favorite Female Country Artist: Taylor Swift
Favorite Country Duo or Group: Dan + Shay
Favorite Country Album: Taylor Swift “Red (Taylor’s Version)”
Favorite Country Song: Morgan Wallen “Wasted on You”
Favorite Male Hip-Hop Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Favorite Female Hip-Hop Artist: Nicki Minaj
Favorite Hip-Hop Album: Kendrick Lamar “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”
Favorite Hip-Hop Song: Future ft. Drake & Tems “WAIT FOR U”
Favorite Male R&B Artist: Chris Brown
Favorite Female R&B Artist: Beyoncé
Favorite R&B Album: Beyoncé “Renaissance”
Favorite R&B Song: Wizkid ft. Tems “Essence”
Favorite Male Latin Artist: Bad Bunny
Favorite Female Latin Artist: Anitta
Favorite Latin Duo or Group: Yahritza Y Su Esencia
Favorite Latin Album: Bad Bunny “Un Verano Sin Ti”
Favorite Latin Song: Sebastián Yatra “Dos Oruguitas”
Favorite Rock Artist: Machine Gun Kelly
Favorite Rock Song (NEW): Måneskin “Beggin’”
Favorite Rock Album (NEW): Ghost “Impera”
Favorite Inspirational Artist: for KING & COUNTRY
Favorite Gospel Artist: Tamela Mann
Favorite Dance/Electronic Artist: Marshmello
Favorite Soundtrack: “ELVIS”
Favorite Afrobeats Artist (NEW): Wizkid
Favorite K-Pop Artist (NEW): BTS

2022 AMERICAN MUSIC AWARD WINNERS BY ARTIST
Taylor Swift (6): Artist of the Year, Favorite Music Video, Favorite Female Pop Artist, Favorite Pop Album,  Favorite Female Country Artist, Favorite Country Album
Bad Bunny (2): Favorite Male Latin Artist, Favorite Latin Album
Beyonce (2): Favorite Female R&B Artist, Favorite R&B Album
BTS (2): Favorite Pop Duo or Group, Favorite K-Pop Artist
Harry Styles (2): Favorite Male Pop Artist, Favorite Pop Song
Kendrick Lamar (2): Favorite Male Hip-Hop Artist, Favorite Hip-Hop Album
Morgan Wallen (2): Favorite Male Country Artist, Favorite Country Song
Tems (2): Favorite Hip-Hop Song, Favorite R&B Song
Wizkid (2): Favorite R&B Song, Favorite Afrobeats Artist (NEW)
Anitta (1): Favorite Female Latin Artist
Chris Brown (1): Favorite Male R&B Artist
Coldplay (1): Favorite Touring Artist
Dan + Shay (1): Favorite Country Duo or Group
Dove Cameron (1): New Artist of the Year
Drake (1): Favorite Hip-Hop Song
Dua Lipa (1): Collaboration of the Year
Elton John (1): Collaboration of the Year
“ELVIS” (1): Favorite Soundtrack
for KING & COUNTRY (1):Favorite Inspirational Artist
Future (1): Favorite Hip-Hop Song
Ghost (1): Favorite Rock Album (NEW)
Machine Gun Kelly (1):Favorite Rock Artist
Måneskin (1): Favorite Rock Song (NEW)
Marshmello (1): Favorite Dance/Electronic Artist
Nicki Minaj (1): Favorite Female Hip-Hop Artist
Sebastián Yatra  (1): Favorite Latin Song
Tamela Mann (1): Favorite Gospel Artist
Yahritza Y Su Esencia (1): Favorite Latin Duo or Group

About the “2022 American Music Awards”:

  • The AMAs represents the year’s top achievements in music determined by the fans, for the fans. Last year’s show stands as the most social telecast of 2021 with 46.5 million interactions, underscoring the role fans play in the annual event. A vibrant night of non-stop music, the AMAs features a powerful lineup featuring first-time collaborations and exclusive world premiere performances from music’s biggest names – from Pop to Rap, R&B to Country, Latin to K-Pop – and more, as well as memorable moments that live on in pop culture.
  • As the world’s largest fan-voted awards show, the AMAs air globally across a footprint of linear and digital platforms in more than 120 countries and territories.
  • The “2022 American Music Awards” winners are voted entirely by fans.Nominees are based on key fan interactions – as reflected on the Billboard charts – including streaming, album and song sales, radio airplay, and tour grosses. These measurements are tracked by Billboard and its data partner Luminate, and cover the eligibility period of Sept. 24, 2021, through Sept. 22, 2022.
  • Airing live on ABC, the “2022 American Music Awards” are produced by dick clark productions and Jesse Collins Entertainment. Jesse Collins is showrunner and executive producer. Dionne Harmon, Jeannae Rouzan-Clay, and Larry Klein are also executive producers. For the latest AMA news, exclusive content and more, follow the AMAs on social (FacebookTwitterInstagramTikTokSnapchat and YouTube), online at theamas.com and ABC.com, and join the conversation by using the official hashtag for the show, #AMAs.

ABOUT DICK CLARK PRODUCTIONS
dick clark productions is the world’s largest producer and proprietor of televised live event entertainment programming with the “Academy of Country Music Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Billboard Music Awards,” “Golden Globe Awards,” “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” and the “Streamy Awards.” dick clark productions owns one of the world’s most extensive and unique entertainment archive libraries with more than 60 years of award-winning shows, historic programs, specials, performances and legendary programming. For more information please visit www.dickclark.com.

ABOUT ABC ENTERTAINMENT
ABC Entertainment’s compelling programming includes “Grey’s Anatomy,” the longest-running medical drama in primetime television; ratings juggernaut “The Bachelor” franchise; riveting dramas “Big Sky,” “The Good Doctor,” “A Million Little Things,” “The Rookie” and “Station 19”; trailblazing comedies “Abbott Elementary,” “The Conners,” “The Goldbergs,” “Home Economics” and “The Wonder Years”; popular game shows, including “The $100,000 Pyramid,” “Celebrity Family Feud,” “The Chase,” “Press Your Luck” and “To Tell the Truth”; star-making sensation “American Idol”; “Judge Steve Harvey,” the network’s strongest unscripted series debut in a year; reality phenomenon “Shark Tank”; family favorites “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Holey Moley”; “General Hospital,” which heads into its milestone 60th season on the network; and late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”; as well as the critically acclaimed, Emmy®Award-winning “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” specials. The network also boasts some of television’s most prestigious awards shows, including “The Oscars®,” “The CMA Awards” and the “American Music Awards.”

ABC programming can also be viewed on Hulu.

ABOUT JESSE COLLINS ENTERTAINMENT
Founded in 2012, Jesse Collins Entertainment (JCE) is a full-service television and film production company that has played an integral role in producing many of television’s most memorable moments in music entertainment. The Emmy® winning company has a multi-year overall agreement with ViacomCBS Cable Networks. On the film side, the company also has a first look on JCE’s film development projects which could include Viacom’s film entities such as Paramount Players.  JCE’s award-winning and critically acclaimed television includes programming from its three divisions.  From the scripted division: scripted series—Real Husbands of Hollywood, American Soul and miniseries—The New Edition Story and The Bobby Brown Story.  From the unscripted division: unscripted series – Cardi Tries, My Killer Body with K. Michelle, DJ Cassidy’s Pass the Mic and Forward: The Future of Black Music, competition/game shows—Becoming A Popstar, Rhythm + Flow, Sunday Best, Hip Hop Squares and Nashville Squares, talk show – Face to Face with Becky G and children’s series—Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices (Emmy® Award winner).  From the specials division: award shows—The American Music Awards, BET Awards, Soul Train Awards, BET Hip Hop Awards, Black Girls Rock!, BET Honors, UNCF’s An Evening of Stars and ABFF Honors, specials—The Super Bowl Halftime Show, CNN’s Juneteenth: A Global Celebration of Freedom, Martin: The Reunion, John Lewis: Celebrating A Hero, Love & Happiness: An Obama Celebration, Change Together: From The March On Washington To Today, A GRAMMY Salute to the Sounds of Change, Stand Up for Heroes, Dear Mama, Amanda Seales: I Be Knowin’, Def Comedy Jam 25, Leslie Jones: Time Machine, The All-Star Nickmas Spectacular and Rip the Runway.  Emmy® winner Jesse Collins, Founder and CEO, is the executive producer of all programming.  He is also an executive producer for the Grammy Awards.  He produced the 2021 Oscars.

Review: ‘Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,’ starring Ray Brown Jr., Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Margo Jefferson, Judith Tick, Kenny Barron and Jim Blackman

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” 

Directed by Leslie Woodhead

Culture Representation: The documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” features a racially diverse (mostly African American and white) group of people (mostly music artists and writers) discussing the life and legacy of singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Culture Clash: Fitzgerald experienced damaging racism, and her love of touring took a toll on her personal life.

Culture Audience: “Ella Fitzgerald: One of Those Things” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of jazz and biographies of legendary singers.

Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

Ella Fitzgerald left a unique legacy in music that can be compared to very few artists. She mastered the genres of swing, bebop, American standards and, of course, jazz. The well-made documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (directed by Leslie Woodhead and narrated by Sharon D. Clarke) is perhaps the definitive biography film of Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at the age of 79. Although the film does not reveal anything new about her, it does have some great archival material and a well-rounded group of people who are interviewed.

Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, but she was raised primarily in New York state. Her family moved to Yonkers, New York, in 1919, when she was 2 years old. Although she grew up in poverty, she discovered a love of the arts at an early age, and she helped earn money for her family as a dancer and as a singer.

Her teenage years were very turbulent. When Fitzgerald was 13, her beloved mother Tempie died. Ella Fitzgerald biographer Judith Tick says in the documentary the death of Ella’s Fitzgerald’s mother was “a devastating blow, because her mother had been the continuity in her life, and Ella was lost.”

Fitzgerald was sent to reform school in 1933, where she was beaten and experienced other forms of abuse, which people in the documentary say was doled out the harshest to the black kids in the reform school, compared children of other races. Her experiences at the reform school were so traumatic for her, that Fitzgerald never spoke publicly about what happened. However, the documentary shows records from the school with hand-written notes by school authorities that describe Fitzgerald as “ungovernable”—an indication that, despite any abuse she suffered there, her spirit could not be broken.

Yonkers is in close-enough in proximity to New York City that Fitzgerald was able to go to the big city and experience the culture of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, which was the epicenter for African American music in the Northeast. In November 1934, Fitzgerald made her Apollo Theater singing debut on Amateur Night. And, as the famous story goes, she was was initially booed by the audience, but then she won them over with her voice.

The documentary includes an interview with dancer Norma Miller, who was in the audience for Fitzgerald’s fateful Apollo Theater debut, which was the first time that a very nervous Fitzgerald had ever sung in public. “We booed her,” remembers Miller. “They were introducing somebody we didn’t know. We were a bunch of rowdy teenagers in the balcony … Can you imagine? We booed Ella Fitzgerald!”

Fitzgerald’s son Ray Brown Jr. adds, “It was one of those defining moments, like ‘I’m here. I have to do something. Something has to be accomplished.’ And to be able to pull something out of yourself that’s so magical, that’s pretty amazing.”

Miller remembers the turning point when the audience’s reaction went from jeers to cheers: “We heard a sound [her voice]. It was so perfect. She shut us up so quick, you could hear a rat piss on cotton!”

From that Apollo stage debut, Fitzgerald then began hanging out in New York City even more. She would meet two of the people who would have a major impact on her  early music career: Louis Armstrong (who was a big inspiration for her) and drummer/band leader Chick Webb, a dwarf-sized hunchback who didn’t let his unusual physical appearance deter him from being a larger-than-life force in the music business.

Webb had an all-male band and was very reluctant at first to let Fitzgerald in the group. He had two concerns over including her in the band: Her safety and her sex appeal. On the one hand, Webb wasn’t sure if Fitzgerald would be the target of sexual misconduct  as the only woman in a group of randy men. On the other hand, Webb thought that Fitzgerald wasn’t attractive enough to appeal to the band’s audience. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Webb cruelly called her “ugly,” and he and other people would sometimes taunt her over her weight.

In the end, talent won out, and Fitzgerald became part of Webb’s band. It was the big break that led to her first mainstream hit “Mr. Paganini.” She experienced even bigger success with the classic “A Tisket A Tasket,” one of her signature songs.

Smokey Robinson says that “A Tisket A Tasket” was the first Ella Fitzgerald song her remembers hearing: “My sisters used to play that all day long, every day.” The massive crossover success of the song led to Fitzgerald making her film debut in the 1942 movie “Ride ‘Em Cowboy.” In the film,  she sang “A Tisket A Tasket” on a bus where all the people on the bus except for Fitzgerald were white. The irony is that in real life in that era, she would’ve been relegated to the back of the bus in many places in the U.S., where racial segregation was legal at the time.

This segregation affected Fitzgerald’s life in many different ways. In terms of her career, she (like other black entertainers) could not perform in certain venues that refused to have black performers. She also wasn’t allowed on certain TV programs and radio shows. And even the music she performed early in her career (swing and bebop) was considered “race” music at the time.

Her physical appearance was also harshly judged in other ways. Female entertainers were expected to be thin, glamorous and sexy (not much has changed since those days), and “Ella did not fulfill those expectations,” says writer Margo Jefferson. Her success is testament to how Fitzgerald was a groundbreaking nonconformist in her field, Jefferson adds.

Fitzgerald was also a trailblazer when, after Webb died at the age 30, she took over his band and became the leader, and the band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. The documentary mentions that some of the band members resented having a woman as their leader, so there was some inevitable friction. After the group disbanded during World War II, Fitzgerald’s popularity waned.

But she was a master reinvention, so Fitzgerald transitioned from swing to bebop music. It was by performing bebop that she was able to showcase her brilliant ability to have her singing voice do solos on the same level as musical instrument solos. Jazz pianist Kenny Barron comments, “She had a great ear [for music].”

She started hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie and eventually toured with Gillespie and his band. It was while touring with Gillespie that Fitzgerald fell in love with Gillespie’s bass player Ray Brown. Fitzgerald and Brown married in 1947, and adopted the son of Fitzgerald’s half-sister and named him Ray Brown Jr.  (The documentary does not mention Fitzgerald’s first husband, Benny Kornegay. Their 1941 to 1943 marriage ended in an annulment.)

Fitzgerald’s marriage to Brown ended in divorce in 1953, but the former couple still worked together for many years afterward. It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Fitzgerald was a workaholic who loved to perform and travel. That heavy touring schedule, which she kept up for several decades, took a toll on her personal life. By her own admission, she could never be the type of wife and mother than many people expected her to be, so it was difficult to find a love partner who could understand how devoted was to music.

Another transitional period in Fitzgerald’s life and career was when Norman Ganz became her manager in the mid-1940s. He wanted Fitzgerald to cross over to an even broader audience, so it was his idea to have Fitzgerald perform standards from the Great American Songbook. Ganz also launched Verve Records, as a showcase for Fitzgerald. It allowed her to appeal to a more affluent and sophisticated audience, which opened the doors for her to perform at venues that were traditionally off-limits to black performers.

And sometimes those doors could only be opened because the venues were shamed into doing so. The Mocambo nightclub refused to book Fitzgerald, until Marilyn Monroe, who as a big fan of Fitzgerald, famously said that she and other celebrities would boycott the club unless Fitzgerald was allowed to perform there.

Granz was also a tireless advocate in pushing for desegregation not only for Fitzgerald but also for other people of color. Granz’s biographer Tad Hershon comments on Granz: “He saw the evils of segregation, and was determined to campaign against segregation in jazz music.” When Fitzgerald moved to Beverly Hills in California, she couldn’t buy a home there, due to racial discrimination, so Granz had to buy the home and put it in his name.

Although Granz was undoubtedly a loyal champion for Fitzgerald, he’s also described in the documentary as “nasty” and “controlling.” Not only did he want a tight grip on Fitzgerald by dictating what she could and could not do, he also alienated other artists (such as Gillespie and Sinatra) because of his bossy ways. When Sinatra refused to take Granz’s orders, Granz spitefully told Fitzgerald that she couldn’t work with Sinatra anymore.

Granz stood by Fitzgerald when she and members of her entourage were arrested in Houston in 1955, just because some members of the entourage were shooting dice in her dressing room. The documentary includes a snippet of an audio interview from Fitzgerald where she said that even though the arrest was an obviously racist set-up and a humiliating experience, the irony is that people at the police department still asked for her autograph. Granz later sued the Houston police department for reimbursement of the bail money.

One of the rare gems in the documentary is a never-broadcast clip from a radio interview that Fitzgerald did in the 1960s, when civil-rights protests were very much at the forefront of African American struggles for equality. In the interview, Fitzgerald talked about how it bothered her that when she traveled outside the U.S., particularly in Europe, people couldn’t understand why the U.S. was so segregated and that even someone as famous as Fitzgerald would be treated like a second-class citizen in certain parts of the U.S.

In the interview, Fitzgerald also said that die-hard racists probably won’t change their minds, but younger generations might have different beliefs about race. And  Fitzgerald mentioned that she had to speak out about these issues, because she felt it was the right thing to do, even though some people think that entertainers shouldn’t talk about politics.

At the end of the interview, Fitzgerald asks where the interview will be heard. When the interviewer tells her it will be heard across many states, she replies that she might get in trouble for what she said, but she needed to say it. Perhaps her comments were considered too “radical” at the time, and maybe that’s why the interview never aired.

Tony Bennett comments in the documentary about Fitzgerald: “She never made a political statement, except when I heard her say three words. And it was the most complete definition of the complete ignorance of the world and the way they treat African Americans. She said, ‘Tony, we’re all here.’ In three words, she said the whole thing.”

In addition to her problems with racism, Fitzgerald was experiencing issues as a mother who was frequently away from home. Her relationship with her son Ray suffered, especially during his rebellious teen years, when he was shipped off to Catholic military school. When Ray moved out of the family home in the 1970s, he was estranged from his mother for about 10 years afterward. Fortunately, they reconciled, and he speaks of his mother in very loving ways in the documentary.

Other people interviewed in the film (who all predictably praise Fitzgerald) include music artists Patti Austin, Johnny Mathis, Jamie Cullum, Laura Mvula, Cleo Laine, Andre Previn (who died in 2019), Itzhak Perlman and drummer Gregg Field. Also weighing in with their thoughts are jazz writer Will Friedland, Newport Jazz festival founder George Wein and Jim Blackman, a longtime Fitzgerald fan who was her last tour manager.

During the course of her influential career, Fitzgerald won almost every possible prestigious award for music. She earned the nicknames First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella. But this documentary also beautifully shows that her greatest accomplishment is how she paved the way for so many other artists and created a legacy that will continue to influence countless generations.

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 26, 2020.

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