Diane Warren Knows She’s a ‘Pain in the Ass’—and Isn’t Sorry

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
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“How about that Diane is nuts? Can we start with that?”

The first voice you hear in the new documentary Diane Warren: Relentless is unmistakable. Before her face even appears, you know it’s Cher. It’s quite the unfiltered start to a documentary, especially one about the prolific songwriter Diane Warren, who this past weekend competed for her 15th Oscar nomination.

“Nuts. Cheap. Unrelenting. Optimistic. Sweet. Just crazy, oh my God,” Cher continues, smiling as she describes the woman who wrote one of her biggest hits, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and who has since—despite this string of adjectives—become one of her great friends. “But she writes great songs.”

That push-pull is a throughline of Relentless, as the film introduces us to the marquee collaborators behind some of Warren’s greatest successes—all with, let’s say, unique terms of endearment for their colleague. “It is like guerrilla warfare with her sometimes,” producer and composer David Foster says, all the while marveling over her genius and productivity. “She’s a motherfucker,” the legendary Quincy Jones says, his eyes twinkling as he grins into the camera. “My kind of girl.”

None of this is news to Warren. “I’m a pain in the ass,” she states in the documentary. “I’ll admit it.”

Diane Warren points in a studio in a still from “Diane Warren: Relentless.”

Diane Warren.


Diane Warren: Relentless premiered Tuesday at the SXSW Film and TV Festival—uncanny timing after a momentous weekend. Two days before, Warren broke her own record as the most nominated woman in Academy Awards history to never win in a competitive category. (In 2022, she became the first songwriter to receive an honorary Oscar at the Governor Awards.)

While that losing track record has become, as she says, “kind of a joke,” when we connected over Zoom last week before the double whammy of the Oscars and her film’s SXSW premiere, she reiterated her reverence for the honor—even if her nominated song, “The Fire Inside” from Flamin’ Hot, was not predicted to win. “You never know, and the same thing as always could happen again, but I’m just happy to be there,” she told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “It’s very rarefied air to be an Academy Award nominee.”

She laughed off the insults, which one surmises are also compliments, that kick off Relentless. It’s meant to be “endearing,” said director Bess Kargman, who was also on Zoom. “Cher, for a second, was having trouble finding words to describe [Diane]. ‘She’s just…’” At this point Warren interjects: “An asshole?”

Kargman laughed, adding, “Diane is so many things that you stumble for a second because there’s a lot of different words to describe her.” Once again, Warren had to interrupt: “And most of them aren’t nice. ‘Pain in the ass.’ ‘Nightmare.’ No, I’m not a nightmare. I’m a bitch.”

“No,” Kargman insisted. “You’re both relentless and unrelenting at the same time. Relentless in a positive way.”

Diane nods: “Yeah, that’s how I got here.” She often shows off the bracelet she made. It reads “Relentless as Fuck.”

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To date, Warren has written songs for more than 450 recording artists—almost all of them with her as the sole writing credit—and her catalog is valued at over half a billion dollars. “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Unbreak My Heart,” “Because You Loved Me,” “How Do I Live,” “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”—those are all Warren. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say she’s written songs for every major artist of the past four decades, from Whitney Houston to Mariah Carey, Britney Spears to Lady Gaga, and Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé. Her music has been featured in over 150 movies; you’ve already heard about that Oscar nominations record.

Relentless is an homage to what Kargman referred to as Warren’s “babies,” which are her songs. But it’s also a rare, surprisingly intimate dive into her past. As self-deprecating and sometimes flippant as Warren can be, those are darts fired from windows in a fortress she’s built around herself. Kargman chronicles how difficult it can be to break down those walls in the film, but, when she does, Warren speaks candidly and emotionally about her difficult upbringing, the tenacity it took to break into the industry as a woman with no connections, being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a sexual assault she experienced as a young girl, and the disappointment she continues to feel for not having won a competitive Oscar.

(That might add valuable context to the Puck scene report from Sunday’s ceremony that alleges Warren threw a “mini-tantrum” when presenter Ariana Grande didn’t read the names and credits, including hers, of the original song nominees. According to Puck, “Warren was so pissed about not being mentioned there, she leapt from her seat and started running around the orchestra level looking for board of governors members to complain to.” We’ve reached to see if Warren had anything to say about the report.)

Kargman had to convince Warren that the film needed to be about her life in addition to her work. “No one wants to watch a purely music-focused film about a human being who is as fascinating as Diane,” she said.

Again, Warren quickly weighed in. “I don’t think I’m fascinating,” she said, to which Kargman replied, “Diane, you’re so fascinating. You’re not fascinating to you. But you’re fascinating to someone who isn’t you.”

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Warren grew up in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her music obsession started at just 11. When her girlfriends would cart her to house parties as a teenager, she’d shut herself in the bathroom tinkering on her guitar while everyone else flirted with boys. Noticing how seriously she took songwriting, her father bought her a guitar and built her a shed in the backyard to practice in. Her mother, however, begged her to quit her foolish dreams and get a job as a secretary. “One of my favorite things to do was say, ‘Fuck you, I’ll prove you wrong,’” Warren says in the film. Her mother, she surmises, was the first example of that.

Her first big hit was DeBarge’s 1985 single “Rhythm of the Night” when she was 29. At the time, Warren was signed to a predatory contract that paid her just $200 a week and gave her no share of revenue from her work. She eventually sued to get out of that contract, settled, and started her own company, and has owned the rights to every song she’s written since.

Even with successful tracks under her belt, she had to work doggedly to convince artists to take her seriously and work with her—a tenacity likened to that of a used car salesman. Despite Warren having scored her first Oscar nomination in 1987 for Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from the movie Mannequin, Cher had to be all but coerced, bullied, and forced by Warren to record “If I Could Turn Back Time” soon after.

Cher hated the demo, which featured Warren’s admittedly not-great singing. “I grabbed her legs. I held her feet to the ground, literally,” Warren says in the film about their meeting, where she wouldn’t let Cher leave without agreeing to do the song. For at least 30 minutes, Cher kept saying no, until Warren told her she’d pay for the recording of the track. “I thought she was the cheapest chick I know…” Cher says about why she caved. “From the moment I started to sing it, it was perfect… I did it in, like, 15 minutes.”

“I remember looking in the glass booth,” Warren says. “I see her singing. She looked at me like, ‘You fucking bitch, you were right.’”

The marvel of Warren’s body of work is how sweeping it is, the countless examples of booming, swooning love ballads—the kinds of bombastic tracks that attract the world’s best singers, surge to the top of the charts, and earn Oscar nods when placed in movies. You would think, then, that Warren is Hollywood’s most hopeless romantic. Not quite.

“She knows the power of love,” Clive Davis says. “She knows the heartbreak of love. She knows all the emotional qualities surrounding it. But it’s fantasy, you know. Because to my knowledge, she’s never really been in love.”

Relentless alludes to a relationship Warren may have had with former collaborator Guy Roche, but she has always claimed to be disinterested in any sort of dating life or partnership. “I’m straight,” she says in the film. “Everybody thinks I’m gay. I don’t care what I am. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to be in a relationship. It’s not for me. It never was.”

Bess Kargman and Diane Warren pose for a picture at the premiere of “Diane Warren: Relentless.”

Bess Kargman and Diane Warren.

Errich Petersen/SXSW Conference & Festivals via Getty Images

But the documentary unveils a person who is far more vulnerable and in tune with her emotions than her reputation suggests. Much of the film finds Warren working through the past and how it’s affected her today, whether it’s her relationship with her parents when she was a rebellious teenager, the sexual assault she revealed in 2016 while promoting her song from the film The Hunting Ground, or even the recent loss of her beloved cat, Mouse. (“I’ve never loved anything as much as that cat,” she said.)

For a person so private and work-oriented, what was it like to take a beat and relive all of that?

“I’m so into what’s next, so it’s hard sometimes getting me to talk about the past. I’d want to jump out the window,” she told Obsessed. “So it wasn’t always easy to get stuff out of me.”

Calling that an understatement, Kargman said the challenge of getting Warren to speak about her life was revealing in and of itself: “I almost think that it’s more real and raw to have someone be a bit guarded, than someone who’s just an open book from day one.”

Ask Warren about the night she won her honorary Oscar, however, and brace for her to uncharacteristically gush. She called it “the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me, the best night of my life.”

She was shocked, however, to learn how heavy the trophy is. After the ceremony, she proudly walked around the house holding it for days. “I didn’t want to put it down,” she said. Then: “My fucking back went out.” But there’s a solution she thinks could prevent future statue-related injuries caused by an imbalance of weight. “A second Oscar,” she said. “I can start doing curls.”

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