Review: Dolemite Is My Name
Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
Eddie Murphy: Rudy Ray Moore
Keegan-Michael Key: Jerry
Mike Epps: Jimmy
Craig Robinson: Ben
Titus Burgess: Toney
Da'Vine Joy Randolph: Lady Reed
Wesley Snipes: D'urville Martin
Snoop Dogg: Rog
Chris Rock: Bobby Vale
Screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Directed by Craig Brewer
Eddie Murphy was a legend in my mind long before I was introduced to Rudy Ray Moore. The Chitlin' Circuit, a collection of night clubs and jazz and blues houses that featured African-American performers during segregation, was known to me because of the work of comedians like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Flip Wilson among others. Foxx's comedy albums were soaked with profanity and blue humor and to listen to one as a youngster was the equivalent of getting your hands on a porno mag. Forbidden.
A few years ago while pilfering through a milk crate of old albums in a flea market I stumbled across This Ain't No White Christmas, a comedy record by Rudy Ray Moore. The cover featured a nude Moore flanked by four mostly nude women decorating a Christmas tree. A little research educated me on this man who created Dolemite, one of the most influencial comedic personas of the '70s, one that would influence not only comics like Murphy, but rapper artists like Snoop Dogg and 2 Live Crew. Moore's comedy was, like Redd Foxx, dirty and raucous. You couldn't buy his albums in conventional record stores. You had to get the bootleg.
These days of Moore performing on the Chitlin' Circuit and developing a cult following are the setting for the early scenes of the wonderful biopic Dolemite Is My Name. Eddie Murphy is Moore and we see him struggling to find a foot into show business. He works at a record store by day and serves as an emcee at a club at night, telling stale jokes that barely worked when they were originally told. He longs for fame and stardom, but has yet to display any talent for achieving it. Murphy's performance is captivating from the beginning as he vascillates between Moore's fast-talking idea man and his vulnerable side which wonders how he got to this point.
One night, he listens to some homeless men speaking in rhyme about the sexual adventures of a character named Dolemite. They waxed rhapsodic about his conquests in and out of the bedroom. They are absurd, ridiculous, and profane in the way they top each other. Inspired, Moore sits down with a notebook to polish up the jokes and his new persona is born. Soon, he is making cash and developing a bit of a following, but he is not where he wants to be. One night, while at a screening of the Matthau/Lemmon picture The Front Page, Moore laments that there was nothing in that movie for people like him and his friends. "No funny, no titties, and no kung fu." Armed with very little money and a dream in his heart, Rudy Ray Moore recruits his friends and some film school students to make a Dolemite movie because that is what the people want.
The rest of the movie is the story of that making of that film. It's an underdog story, really, and anyone who has seen the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood will see similarities. Both films are about men with a passion to tell their story their way. Their infectuous energy and love of misfits instills goodwill and we root for them, even if their venture is foolhardy. This isn't surprising considering both films were written by Larry Alexander and Scott Karaszewski. They specialize in these kinds of biopics about the oddballs and outcasts of the entertainment world.
The group under Rudy includes Jerry (Keegan-Michael Key), a playwright of serious issues who patiently co-pens Rudy's blaxploitation script. His friend Ben (Craig Robinson) provides the music. Jimmy (Mike Epps) is a producer. And his co-star is Lady Reed, a woman Rudy takes under his wing one night after a show. Their relationship is sweet and warm and allows us to see that this man is way more than just some guy trying to make a cheap movie. The heart of the film is in the scenes between Murphy's Moore and Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed. I believe Eddie Murphy deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here, but so does Randolph. She is a revelation.
Dolemite Is My Name is a return to form for Eddie Murphy. This is the kind of stuff we had grown accustomed to seeing him do before all of the family pictures and toned down vehicles. Sure, he's been good in recent outings like Shrek and Dreamgirls, but Dolemite Is My Name is his best work since the very underrated Bowfinger. This is upper tier Murphy. I heard on Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast that this film is the first time Eddie Murphy has said the f-word in a movie in over 20 years.
But it's not the cursing (and there is A LOT in this movie) that makes the performance so compelling. It's the manic energy and exhurberance. The sheer joy of playing this character. My understanding is Dolemite Is My Name was a passion project for Eddie Murphy. It's good to see that playful fire in his eyes again.
NOTE: Dolemite, the movie this film chronicles, is available on Amazon Prime. You should watch it.