Eddie Murphy is back, baby, in this groovy, uproarious take on the gonzo career of Rudy Ray Moore.
Rudy Ray Moore is often heralded as the “Godfather of Rap” — a stand-up comic known for his pimp-tastic stage persona Dolemite, a crass, over-dressed lothario with the gift of rhythmic gab, Moore inspired everyone from Busta Rhymes to Snoop Dogg. “Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that’s for real,” Snoop (who cameos in this film) is quoted as saying.
But Moore is most likely known for Dolemite, the self-produced 1975 blaxploitation comedy that ended up becoming a midnight movie classic for its ramshackle, so-bad-its-good charm. Like your Eds Wood and Tommys Wiseau, Moore had that alchemic gulf of talent to hustle that made his works so enduringly charming. But Moore’s output as a black filmmaker is especially important regardless of notoriety; sure, Dolemite is silly and over-the-top, but it was also empowering, especially for black audiences at the time, to see a movie made by and for them. Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski recognize that multifaceted appeal, and that’s probably what makes Dolemite Is My Name one of the most delightful movies of the year.
Filling Moore’s oversized pimp shoes is Eddie Murphy, throwing himself gamely into the role in ways I haven’t really seen since Dreamgirls (or, more fittingly, Bowfinger). It’s not the most chameleonic portrayal of the comedian, to be sure; it’s hard to think of anyone who could get the loud-mouthed rhythms of Dolemite down to a tee. But Murphy finds the happy medium between his own natural comedic instincts and Moore’s giddy, fill-a-room enthusiasm, and it’s infectious to watch. It’s more about capturing the spirit, rather than the letter, of your subject; in this respect, Murphy absolutely shines. I’ve missed this Eddie Murphy for so long, and it feels so good to see him back in top form.
Like Ed Wood, Dolemite Is My Name is largely preoccupied with the kind of giddy, lets-put-on-a-show enthusiasm that comes from these kinds of underdog stories. While Murphy charms as a pre-Dolemite Moore, a humble standup constantly frustrated by one missed opportunity after another, he and the film really come alive once he gets a taste of success (he eventually gets not one, but two comedy albums on the Billboard charts at the same time), doubly so once the fly-by-night production of Dolemite starts.
Moore’s the kind of guy who coasts on charm and pure hustle, and doesn’t let pesky things like ‘lack of filmmaking expertise’ get in the way. No, that’s reserved for ‘experts’ like director D’Urville Martin (a prima donna actor who parlays a walk-on in Rosemary’s Baby into a boast that he’s “worked with Roman Polanski,” played with camp aplomb by Wesley Snipes), self-serious screenwriter Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) and white film student Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Brewer keeps the proceedings moving along at an entertaining pace, understanding the magnetic star power of Murphy while also graciously making room for the rest of the ensemble to shine. He basks in the glow of the ’70s setting, Ruth E. Carter‘s costumes and Eric Steelberg‘s camera luxuriating in the garishness of the period. And yet, Brewer and co. never forget Moore’s roots; this is still Harlem in the ’70s, after all.
Amid all of Dolemite’s outrageous fashions, we still see the cramped apartment where he records his first album (packed with friends to simulate a crowded comedy house), the dirt-covered Dunbar Hotel where Dolemite is filmed, the back alleys where Moore records the raw material (cribbed from the rhymed toasts of a wino) that forms Dolemite in the first place. Dolemite is a mineral forged from these impoverished conditions, and Brewer makes sure we don’t get too lost in the fantasy.
I’ve missed this Eddie Murphy for so long, and it feels so good to see him back in top form.
In addition to the aforementioned ‘experts’, Moore’s entourage feels like a necessary grounding for Murphy, a reminder of where he came from (especially since, given his relative poverty, he never really left). Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, and Tituss Burgess all delight as members of Moore’s crew, but it’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Moore’s leading Lady Reed who comes close to holding equal court with Murphy.
The two quickly build a mutual, platonic respect as entertainers and friends, Lady Reed bringing out the best in Moore without feeling like a marginalized player. Sometimes they lay on the fat representation subtext a little thick, but some on-the-nose dialogue aside, it’s probably worth pointing out that full-figured women don’t often get these kinds of roles, and that’s worth changing if we can see Randolph on the screen more often.
For those of us who get to see directly-to-streaming films on the big screen (whether at festivals or advance screenings), it stings to think of something as lively and lovely Dolemite Is My Name being relegated to living-room viewing only. But even if it’s not the most complicated, subtextually rich biopic in the world, it’s an infectious crowd-pleasure that signals the return of one of our greatest comic talents in Murphy. So in the spirit of its titular figure, I conclude with the following:
Let me say it loud, and let me make myself clear;
Y’all motherfuckers won’t have a better time this year!
Dolemite Is My Name is currently available on Netflix.