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‘Diane Warren: Relentless’ Review: A Light but Winning Documentary About the Oscars’ Favorite Loser

Every year, a different group of people win an Academy Award. And every year, the same woman doesn’t. Her name is Diane Warren, she’s one of the greatest American songwriters of the last several decades, and she’s now been nominated 15 times without taking home a single competitive Oscar (the honorary statuette she received at the Governors Awards in 2022 does not appear to have slaked her thirst for Oscar gold, a thirst so intense that it makes Bradley Cooper seem casually indifferent by comparison).

Once upon a time, that lack of recognition was regrettable because Warren had penned some of the most immortal tracks in the modern history of the Best Original Song category, including “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from “Mannequin,” “How Do I Live” from “Con Air,” and the epochal “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from “Armageddon.” These days, the fact that Warren hasn’t won is mostly regrettable because she refuses to stop trying.

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Since falling short with “Til it Happens to You” in 2015 (an achingly personal Lady Gaga collaboration that drew upon Warren’s own experience of sexual abuse), the self-described “Susan Lucci of the Oscars” has become a permanent fixture at the Dolby Theatre, her presence as reliable as low ratings and lazy jokes about how all of the movies are too long. In each of the last seven awards seasons, without fail, the legendary tunesmith has leant another rah-rah empowerment ballad called “I’ll Fight” or “Stand Up for Something” or “I’m Standing with You” to some forgettable movie in search of a reliable ticket to Hollywood’s biggest night (Warren is the reason why the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos biopic landed more Academy Award nominations than “All of Us Strangers”), and in each of the last seven awards seasons, without fail, that plan has worked — up to a point.

Anyone who loves to hate — or hates to love — the Oscars as much as I do has surely wondered why this singularly brilliant pop icon, whose song catalog is already valued at more than $500 million, continues to participate in a sadomasochistic ritual that threatens to recast her as an industry punchline. Does she really need the validation the Academy has denied her for so long? Could she possibly disagree with the idea that her best songs are behind her? Or is it simply that Warren refuses to give up? To watch Bess Kargman’s light and scattered biodoc about her is to recognize that the answer to all of those questions is “yes.”

It was only going to be a matter of time before someone made a movie about Warren’s tortured relationship with the movies themselves, and I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that “Diane Warren: Relentless” effectively feels like an Oscar campaign film — this particular documentary would’ve seemed dishonest if it didn’t, to the extent that its failure to launch a Best Original Song contender of its own seems like a major oversight. A loving ode to a true original, Kargman’s film never even dares to imply that some of Warren’s recent tunes might be formulaic, but the quality of her work is almost besides the point in a documentary so convincingly enamored of its subject’s perseverance. Even Warren’s most frustrated critics will come away from this movie feeling delighted that she’s still out there doing her thing, and that we get to share the world with such a fascinating creature — with the kind of artist who, in Steven Spielberg’s words, “was born without brakes.”

Kargman’s by-the-books documentary couldn’t be more straightforward in its design, but the anonymous nature of the film’s approach befits its chameleonic subject: A songwriter who never leaves her fingerprints on her work, and is radical only for her laser-focused commitment to creating so much of it. That makes Warren seem like the rarest of birds in a town where fame and fortune tends to be regarded as its own reward, and the talking heads Kargman has assembled here make it clear that Warren is a character among characters.

The movie opens with Cher emphatically calling her “nuts” in the nicest of ways, a diagnosis that demands far more nuance than Kargman is ever willing to give it. Indeed, it will take the better part of an hour to specify that Warren has Asperger’s, as the resolutely uncomplicated “Relentless” is far more comfortable portraying its subject as a lovable kook whose monastic routine and disinterest in romance are mere eccentricities — not signs of neurodivergence. If Warren seldom ascribes any aspect of her behavior to her place on the spectrum, perhaps that’s because she has such a clear sense of her own motivation, which easily boils down to a mantra she taught herself as a teenager: “Fuck you, I’ll prove you wrong.”

The daughter of a Van Nuys woman who clearly didn’t get her (she still winces when remembering how her mom used to joke about taking the wrong baby home from the hospital), Warren grew up being told to conform, and struggled with the fact that she couldn’t have done that even if she wanted to. Her father was an early champion of her artistic talent, but Warren still wound up in juvie before Cass Elliot taught her to make her own kind of music. She sang it too, which made it hard for her to sell her early demos, but eventually broke through by writing “Solitaire” for Laura Branigan and “Rhythm of the Night” for DeBarge — the rest was history.

If “Relentless” is light on the details of its namesake’s professional life as an artist, that’s largely because Warren is a solo writer who spends most of her days alone with her cats in the Hollywood office building that she bought (“I love Mondays,” she sighs at the start, as the chaos of the weekend gives way to the comforting routine of the work week). Kargman makes sure to spotlight a few special footnotes here and there, like how Cher initially didn’t like “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and how “Con Air” forced Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes into recording competing versions of “How Do I Live” (it was a massive hit for each of them), but this movie can only do so much to help shape the story of Warren’s career, and most of the info here will be old news to anyone of a certain age (i.e. how Warren was inspired to write “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” after hearing Barbra Streisand talk about James Brolin on TV).

The fact that Warren is resolutely uninterested in letting us into her songwriting process might have sunk this movie if it weren’t so fun to watch her do everything else. As Randy Jackson insists, she truly “gives zero fucks,” and that’s clearly apparent as we watch her joke with a fellow songwriter she once dated — back when she dated — or try to teach one of her many birds to say “fuck you” instead of “I love you.” She’s a lighthearted figure, and the rare artist who sincerely takes most of the setbacks she suffers in stride (I can personally attest to Warren’s ability to laugh at herself, and have always admired her for that).

Of course, anyone who saw the crestfallen look on Warren’s face after Sam Smith beat her Lady Gaga collab for Best Original Song knows that she has some fucks to give, and it’s no surprise that Kargman’s movie becomes significantly more interesting when it pivots towards its subject’s tumultuous relationship with the Oscars. Part of the issue is that Warren is always convinced she’s on the top of her game (“I’ve just written my best song” is both a personal mantra and a running joke), and the Academy has a habit of publicly refuting that belief. Kargman scrambles the documentary’s timeline for maximum effect, but it would be impossible to disguise how deeply Warren takes her losses to heart. And while that might be the definition of a first world problem, unlike the — also unfairly maligned — Bradley Cooper, Warren doesn’t have or want much of a life beyond making Oscar bait. “This isn’t a job,” she says, “this is my life. And you can’t retire from your life.”

And yet, in spite or because of the sympathy that it engenders for its subject, Kargman’s documentary struggles to contextualize the importance that Warren places on the Oscars. “Relentless” is more than an hour old before we learn that Warren was molested as a child, and while that awful revelation makes it easy to appreciate why she was so hurt when the song that she wrote about sexual abuse was beaten by one of the worst James Bond themes of the 21st century (Warren says that it was like re-living the shame of her abuse), Kargman’s unwillingness to more deeply explore such a difficult topic or better frame it within the narrative of Warren’s career casts her obsessive pursuit of an Academy Award under far too dark a shadow for this sunny film to see it clearly.

Instead, “Relentless” pivots away to another hardship — the death of Warren’s cat — before reverting back to a riff on female empowerment that’s as broad and generic as the recent songs that Warren has written on the subject. As a person who’s often found himself wishing that Warren would leave space for other, worthier nominees in her category (it’s not her fault the Academy snubbed “Glasgow” from “Wild Rose,” but I have to blame somebody), I came away from this movie with a vague but palpable new appreciation for who she is, what she does, and why she won’t stop. Most surprisingly, I also came away from it hoping that she’ll eventually win an Oscar someday, and disappointed that this documentary about her seems more interested in helping her do that than it does in succeeding on its own terms.

Grade: C+

“Diane Warren: Relentless” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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