Movies about movies are a risky affair as, or the most part, audiences aren’t interested in the process of film-making. They are interested in people, which is why the larger than life personalities chronicled in Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist proved to so magnetic. Eddie Murphy’s latest film, Dolemite Is My Name, is very similar to these titles, in how it chronicles the making of a so-called ‘classic bad movie’ by a larger than life personality, and that it’s also very good. The film in many ways shares the passion and love of the man it’s based on, with everyone involved as interested in telling the story of Moore as his signature character.
Released in 1975, Dolemite proved to be a massive hit when it was first released, earning 10 million dollars during its first run, and influencing the style of the entire blaxploitation genre for years to come. It continues to inspire homage and parody, such as the hit 2009 comedy Black Dynamite, which made several references to Dolemite and its makers. But more than just about the movie, Dolemite Is My Name is a biopic of a fascinating man overflowing with passion and soul.
On the surface, it may seem like a standard rags to riches story, following Rudy Ray Moore from his days as a struggling comedian working in a record store to attending the premier of Dolemite. What makes the film unique is the same thing that sets Ed Wood apart from The Disaster Artist, and that’s the protagonist themselves. Though Dolemite is considered a classic example of a ‘good bad movie’, Rudy Ray Moore was still a very talented and ambitious man, whose essence Eddie Murphy is able to capture beautifully.
Murphy shows great range in his portrayal of Moore. From the first time we see him, we get the feeling of a big fish in a small pond. Earlier parts of the movie show Moore’s rise to prominence on the comedic circuit. Far from being padding, these scenes show how Moore established his signature comedic style, including how he created his signature rhyming style from an acquaintance. It is this rhyming style that would prove the basis for what would later become rap music. The transitions between these segments are as seamless as Moore’s rhymes, and Murphy makes it all the more endearing for us to watch.
It’s interesting because Eddie Murphy bears little resemblance to Rudy Ray Moore physically. Moore also has a very deep voice, which one might think doesn’t bode well for Murphy’s more higher-pitched voice. But that’s where Eddie Murphy’s talent comes in. On the surface, he doesn’t bear much resemblance to Moore, but the way he carries himself brings the character to life. In spite of Eddie Murphy being a recognizable star, when the movie starts, you will only see Rudy Ray Moore.
While Ed Wood and Disaster Artist only focused on the director and maybe a close friend or love interest, Rudy Ray Moore’s odyssey to fame is filled with an abundance of colorful and memorable personalities, all played to perfection by a rich ensemble of actors. The film features the talents of Chris Rock, Wesley Snipes, Snoop Dogg, and Keegan Michael Key. Snipes and Key do particularly well as Dolemite’s director D’Urville Martin and screenwriter Jerry Jones respectively. All the actors have phenomenal chemistry, which makes both the tension and camaraderie work all the better. Both D’Urville and Jones are adamant that the film be a serious, empowering film for people of color, while Moore simply wants to have fun. Their repeated arguments are among the film’s most memorable scenes.
Though every member of the ensemble is brought to loving life, one of the best characters in the film is Lady Reed, played masterfully by Da’Vine Joy Randolf. The relationship between Reed and Moore is a fascinating journey, with her initially disliking Moore’s Dolemite persona due to her belief it’s genuine. Upon learning that it is all make-believe, Reed becomes an active participant in Moore’s stand up now that she’s in on the joke. This leads to one of the film’s best scenes. Reed, a plus-sized woman, mentions her insecurities about her weight in the film. After appearing as the leading lady in Dolemite, she thanks Moore for giving her the part, saying she never expected someone who looked like her to be a star.
But the film doesn’t cut from the completion of the film to the premier. Dolemite does something very unique among biopics for directors in how it chronicles Moore’s frustrating journey to secure distribution for his movie. One particularly harsh scene comes when Moore speaks with real-life radio personality Bobby Vale, played here by Chris Rock. Vale inquires about the film, which had yet to be released. Moore’s angry reply that the film might never be seen is in sharp contrast to the eternal optimism he possessed early on and shows how much the making Dolemite tested this normally fun-loving man. That moment, though subtle, is some of the best acting in Eddie Murphy’s career, and shows how in many ways, getting Dolemite on the screen was far more difficult than getting it in the can.
That may well be a perfect metaphor for this movie. Rudy Ray Moore has been a cult favorite for many years, but outside of the tongue in cheek nature of his work, there hadn’t been much interest in the man himself beyond his greatest devotees. That’s ultimately what this film is about, showing us the struggles and heartbreak of a man whose greatest aspiration in life was to make people smile. In doing so, the film allows us to perhaps watch the original Dolemite with a greater appreciation, now that we know about the love behind the camera.
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