“Eddie Murphy Is Rudy Ray Moore,” declares the poster for director Craig Brewer’s funky, infectious, DIY-spirited romp Dolemite Is My Name. It’s not really a statement regarding the transformative uncanniness of the star’s mimicry – indeed, Murphy doesn’t look or sound much like Moore, a self-styled “ghetto expressionist” most famous for his profane, loquacious pimp character Dolemite. This isn’t a problem, it turns out. As Moore explains to his future stage partner Lady Reed (De’Vine Joy Randolph) during their first encounter in a Southern juke joint, the accoutrements of performance – tangibles like costumes and wigs, but also intangibles like an affected voice – can catalyze a transformation from the outside in. Just as Moore is Dolemite when he puts on the foul-mouthed boaster’s flamboyant suit and lustrous wig, Murphy is Moore for every moment that he’s on screen.
Granted, it’s more akin to Moore the character than Moore the historical figure, but this distinction fits the film’s themes quite snugly. Murphy never really stops being Eddie Murphy when he’s on screen, and while this might have been an illusion-cracking flaw in a different film with a different star, Brewer’s feature employs the viewer's meta-textual awareness of Murphy’s career and public life to cunning effect. Unlike the late-blooming Moore, Murphy found success quickly, ascending from breakout standup star to SNL scene-stealer to one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood at the age of 23 when Beverly Hills Cop (1984) became an unlikely, gargantuan box-office hit. However, three subsequent decades of Nutty Professors, Shreks, Daddy Day Cares, and Norbits have resulted in an artistic reputation that is, to put it generously, somewhat mixed. The actor’s Dreamgirls (2006) Oscar nomination kept hope alive that the incandescent Murphy of old might yet still emerge on a more consistent basis, and Dolemite Is My Name fills a similar niche, career-wise: It’s a testament to the actor’s old-school movie-star charisma and underappreciated skill with more thoughtful, melancholy material. (Who would have thought, all those years ago, that the unstoppable force behind Delirious and Raw would be capable of middle-age vulnerability and pensiveness?)
Dolemite Is MyName is more than a showcase for the 58-year-old Murphy to establish that he’s still got it, however. Its potency hinges, to a certain extent, on the audience’s knowledge of the actor’s ups and downs, on the understanding that even phenomenal success is no bulwark against setbacks, failures, and outright catastrophes. The fact that Murphy never completely disappears into Rudy Ray Moore’s skin is a bug rather than a feature, in other words. It not only foreshadows the latent stardom that Moore is stumbling towards, but also lends weight to the limitless cavalcade of bottom-scraping disillusionments that the man encounters along the way. While Dolemite Is My Name has a disco-era vivacity that exists apart from Murphy – not to mention a sprawling cast of winning characters portrayed by overqualified performers – it’s hard to imagine Brewer’s film without its star. Eddie Murphy is Rudy Ray Moore is Dolemite, and all three are essential to this simple but surprisingly sweet tale about hard-won dreams coming true.
The Arkansas-born Moore (Murphy) has already cut a few R&B singles and comedy albums by the time he finds himself working at the legendary Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store in Los Angeles in 1970. By his own admission, however, the 43-year-old Moore’s showbiz career has long since stalled. He can’t even convince Dolphin’s in-store DJ (Snoop Dogg) to spin his old singles, and the late-night club where he regularly emcees just wants him to introduce the musical acts, not workshop his dated, shticky comedy material. Inspiration strikes when Moore has a run-in with a local wino, whose gloriously vulgar rhyming boasts about his tall tale-style exploits derive from the Dozens, a traditional African-American insult game. This prompts Moore to engage in some amateur cultural anthropology on Skid Row, where he pays grizzled homeless men for their stories and rhymes with crisp dollar bills. Before long Moore has incorporated the same performative bragging into a new character, Dolemite, a stereotypically ostentatious pimp whose talents for ass-kicking and lady-loving are equally legendary. (Or so he insists. Often.)
Dolemite is an unexpected hit with black nightclub audiences, but Moore’s ambition to record a comedy album in his new persona – in the style of Redd Foxx’s “party albums” of the 1950s and 60s – runs into the brick wall of obscenity law, which no local label wants to flout. Enlisting the help of friends like record-store co-worker Theodore Toney (Tituss Burgess) and R&B musician Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson), Moore records and presses his first Dolemite album, Eat Out More Often, under his own label. Records stores are leery about stocking it, even with the explicit album cover discreetly hidden by a brown paper sleeve – which Moore stamps with a red devil, explaining that it will imply something naughty lurks within. Word-of-mouth in the African-American community proves more important that traditional promotion, it turns out, and the resulting proceeds from thriving sales allow Moore and company to crank out the next album and then the next.
Brewer leans heavily on that biopic mainstay, the musical montage, to usher the viewer through these events, but the soul- and funk-heavy score by Scott Bomar gives these familiar cinematic methods a jolt of strutting, all-night-party energy. With the exception of a Bobby Rush blues number or brass-drenched Bo-Keys track here and there, the film’s music is original, a welcome change from the Soul Train needle-drops that one would expect of a 1970s-set feature about a black icon. In a sense, however, the tale of Moore’s low-key comedy stardom is simply the prelude to the real story that director Brewer and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – all white guys, it seems worth pointing out – are interested in telling. Namely: how Moore wrangled a modestly successful underground comedy persona into a micro-budget blaxploitation film with “kung fu, action, and titties,” a succinct description of both the content and the plot of his 1975 feature, simply titled Dolemite.
Aghast at what he regards as the starchy non-comedy of Billy Wilder’s 1974 adaptation of The Front Page, Moore is abruptly provoked to make his own movie, one pitched towards the interests and sensibilities of the black audience he already understands. He enlists everyone he knows in this endeavor, as well as some game UCLA film students with nothing to lose. Key to the enterprise are writer Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), an earnest local playwright known for his moralizing plays about the African-American experience, and bona fide Hollywood actor D’urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), who is willing to lend his name to the project if he can direct (on paper, at least). Setting up shop only somewhat illicitly in the derelict Hotel Dunbar – once the center of black culture in L.A., now a warren for junkies – the cast and crew battle seemingly never-ending setbacks and shoestring compromises to realize Jones and Moore’s tale. The film’s plot, such as it is, involves pimp and nightclub owner Dolemite seeking revenge against the criminals, dirty cops, and corrupt officials who framed him and sent him to prison for 20 years. This he does with a squadron of kung fu-fighting whores. As one does.
While Moore is the undeniable auteur behind the Dolemite film-within-a-film, one of the understated delights of Brewer’s feature is its depiction of the joyous, collaborative spirit of movie-making. It’s the same down-to-earth yet positive vibe that The Disaster Artist zeroed in on when one of the beleaguered actors from Tommy Wiseau’s production observed, “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day doing anything else.” Unlike James Franco’s 2017 film, Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t have a devoted yet dysfunctional friendship at its center, which gives the film a lighter, fluffier, less challenging tone. While this means that Brewer’s feature often feels like a deceptively wholesome victory-lap on Moore’s behalf – Spoiler Alert: Dolemite becomes a box-office hit! – it also means that the film is consistently charming and rousing. Moore’s boundless enthusiasm for making the sort of badass entertainment he would want to see rubs off on everyone around him, giving Dolomite’s production the feeling of a delighted hang-out – even when it runs into potentially lethal electrical or financial problems. The sensation that pervades the set, and therefore Dolomite Is My Name itself, is one of jubilant disbelief: Can you believe we’re making a movie? Us! A movie!
Underneath this elation lurks a streak of anger, despair, and bitterness, although Brewer relies overwhelmingly on Murphy’s performance to convey this shadow. It’s not-so-subtly suggested that Moore views every success as a defiant rejoinder to the rural, Southern upbringing he resents, and especially to his abusive, deadbeat father. Unfortunately, the screenplay never does much with this armchair psychoanalysis, but Murphy, for his part, sells the naked pathos of Moore’s rage, which peeks through in his nastier Dolemite tirades. “You no-business, born-insecure, jock-jawed, rat soup-eatin’ mutha fucka!” he shouts at the mirror, and it’s left ambiguous whether the viewer is witnessing Daddy-directed fury or white-hot self-loathing (or both).
The self-doubt that bedevils artists – and specifically African-American artists, where that doubt is exacerbated by the grinding realities of racism – proves to be the film’s more poignant, fruitful theme. For all his swagger and bombast, Moore struggles with shame, whether about his middle-aged pudginess, his allegedly “niche” appeal, or his make-or-break financial over-extension. (His cast and crew don’t know that he’s sold his house and is sleeping on the film's set to finance the production.) The indignities don’t end when shooting wraps, either: Even the studios specializing in blaxploitation and other B-pictures pass on Dolemite, forcing Moore to premiere the film in a past-its-prime Indianapolis movie palace and to promote the event himself on the city's sidewalks. Eventually, Dimension Pictures, seeing the lines forming for the film’s one-off screenings in black neighborhoods, comes crawling back to Moore to ink a distribution deal, and the DIY auteur isn't above being a bit of a sore winner about it.
Dolemite would go on to rake in $10 million – 100 times its budget – but Brewer’s film suggests that this financial payday was less significant that the vindication of Moore’s instincts, ambition, and guileless passion. The mere existence of the film (and its numerous sequels) is portrayed as a victory in its own right, one undiminished by stilted line readings, visible boom mics, or Moore’s complete lack of martial arts training. It’s about racial representation and the pleasures of lowbrow cinema, but it’s also about the cultural power that Moore sensed when he turned around during that Front Page screening to watch the flicker of the projector’s light beam. In what is perhaps the most moving moment in a film that thrives on big, gooey platitudes about the magic of movies, Reed confesses to Moore on premiere night how much Dolomite means to her: “I'm so grateful for what you did for me, cause I'd never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.”