You will hear a lot in the coming days about Eddie Murphy’s return to form performance in Dolemite Is My Name. About how hilarious he is as Blaxploitation entrepreneur and star Rudy Ray Moore. A return to the Eddie Murphy of Raw, fans will exclaim. Murphy is funny as hell in this film, undeniably, but what should not be overlooked is that he is also refreshingly real. And that has been a long time coming.
Frustrated entertainer and record shop deputy manager Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) despairs of ever finding fame. His aunt’s flat is a storage facility for the towering piles of self-produced LPs the ageing wannabe has churned out. Vinyl which even the store’s resident DJ (Snoop Dogg) rejects for their cheesiness and lack of cool. The closest Rudy has come to the bigtime is a poorly received MC set in a local club before the resident band rocks the house.
However, there remains a spark of hope in Rudy, which flares into a flame of ambition when his comedian’s ear recognises laugh potential in the bantering, obscene, old-time rhymes of Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) a local homeless man. His friends Ben (Craig Robinson), Jimmy (Mike Epps) and Theodore (Tituss Burgess) find the idea hysterical for all the wrong reasons but Rudy perseveres, recording Ricco and fellow rough sleepers as they cuss out and one-up each other in an alley then studiously mimicking their style until it becomes his own.
And thus the man who would later be called the godfather of rap evolves into Dolemite, a fast-talking, yarn-spinning, filth peddling, pimp character with a lairy wardrobe and a determination to charm the world. Dolemite first finds his voice and his vibe on stage with Ben at his back providing a beat and the encouragement Rudy so dearly needs. Later he pays that cheerleading forward, uplifting the spirits of a rejected woman and turning her loose to vent on a stand-up stage.
In a final roll of the dice, Rudy puts out a Dolemite album deemed too filthy for radio play and too niche to break through. Nevertheless, it proves an underground hit. Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) blossoms under Rudy’s mentorship and becomes a true believer in the Dolemite cause. When an insipid ‘white folks’ movie inspires Rudy to bring Dolemite to the big screen, she and his friends are swept up in his excitement and carried along for the crazy ride.
Director Craig Brewer previously made 2005’s Hustle & Flow and its flawed but compelling narrative has echoes here. Dolemite Is My Name is a fun, fond and exuberant account of Rudy Ray Moore’s journey but it is also bittersweet. Like Hustle & Flow, it finds the flaws and beauty in people who have been battered but not broken by their lives. It celebrates a woman as she finds an identity she can be proud to own and it understands the poignancy of optimism.
Clay Griffith’s production design and evocative palette of ‘70s oranges, browns and taupes cleverly gives way to splashes of gaudy colour as real Hollywood comes on board for Dolemite the movie. D’Urville Martin (a scene-gnawingly fantastic Wesley Snipes) alternates smarm, charm and disdain and the occasional uppercut of callousness. He is horrified by Rudy’s ‘let’s put on the show right here!’ approach and the makeshift crew of students and chums.
Rudy’s vision never wavers. He can see how it will all be and he sweeps us up in his fantasy too. The movie-making scenes are surprisingly magical; the hotel’s shabby beauty when suddenly illuminated by pilfered electricity inspires gasps. The preposterous stunts and high drama of the action are drawn with great affection and the LA locations lend an authentic sense of place and time.
Dolemite Is My Name is not perfect, its transitions of tone are messy and some dialogue – Lady Reed’s in particular – would not be out of place in a Real Housewives confessional. Yet you still root for it to work, just as hard as you root for Rudy, and overall it does. This is thanks to the combination of strong direction, a tremendous supporting cast and a subtler incarnation of Eddie Murphy.
This Murphy is trying a little humbleness. And it works for him. His performance doesn’t steal the oxygen of his co-stars like the gurning Murphy of movies past and, broad as the comedy is, there is a subtlety and uncertainty to his Rudy which is indescribably moving. The film also thrusts some sharp jabs about class, privilege and cultural appropriation into our tickled ribs, lest we forget that Rudy’s moviemaking adventures came about through necessity at a time which was anything but funny for those who lived through it.
Available on Netflix from 25th October