Dolemite Is My Name is a high energy biopic of a fictional character
If you’ve never seen Dolemite, you really should. Existing in the shadow of films like Shaft and Hell Up in Harlem, Dolemite feels almost like a parody. It’s goofy, decidedly low budget, and the acting is utterly terrible, even by the metrics of a film movement that didn’t set the highest bar in that regard. But where Dolemite succeeds is in its heart. Minutes into the film you can feel the passion and care that was put into its production, and small quibbles aside, it’s explosively entertaining. This is largely because of the strange artist behind it all, the legendary Rudy Ray Moore.
Part musician, part comedian, and all huckster, Moore was not the type of person who could take no for an answer. Unfortunately for him, no’s were in heavy supply at the time. There just wasn’t a big market for middle-aged, pudgy black men in the entertainment industry, and as such, Moore was going to have to make his own opportunities. And make them he did, at any cost.
Starting just before Moore’s brainchild first came to light, Dolemite Is My Name chronicles his path from enthusiastic nightclub host to uncommonly successful action movie star. After overhearing a local homeless man telling a series of rhyming stories to his friends—a sort of ghetto folklore if you will—Moore decides to embrace this style of storytelling and turn it into a character for his act. Soon, Dolemite was born, and the crowds loved him. Moore, not being the type to let a golden opportunity pass him by, decides to bring his creation to the masses via every medium he can manage. But as previously mentioned, nobody was going to open any doors for Moore regardless of Dolemite’s success as a character. He was going to have to do things his own way.
Eddie Murphy’s performance has been the talk of the festival circuit for good reason. While he does’t necessarily look a lot like the real Rudy Ray Moore, there’s no denying that the two men have a similar vibe. Murphy cranks up the flamboyance, giving a glint to his legendary smile. It’s very easy to forget that the man we’re watching is an iconic superstar. The way he embodies Moore rises above simple impersonation. By making it his own, Murphy creates an honest portrayal of a relatively mysterious man that never feels like a caricature. In a film with a lot of inherent silliness, this is key in keeping the emotion genuine and the energy high.
This energy, however enchanting, proves to be a bit of a stumbling block for the film. With Moore being a relatively mysterious cat, the script has little material to work with in terms of his personal life (it should be noted that Moore’s sexuality was a question left unanswered until a recent documentary indicated he was likely bisexual – the film finds a clever, non-libelous way of touching upon this), and as a result it feels a bit lacking. Taken as a straightforward tale about the creation and subsequent success of the Dolemite character, it feels complete. Taken as a Rudy Ray Moore biopic, it feels like a lot is missing. Alas, the only option when dealing with a cryptic subject is to press forward with gusto, which Dolemite Is My Name has in droves. It’s a handy trick to keep the audience popping and not thinking to ask any too deeply probing questions. While this results in the film feeling like it has little conflict, it’s also emblematic of exactly the type of creator Moore was. To him, conflict is an afterthought – just a small hurdle in the way of an all-important goal: make Dolemite a household name.
Craig Brewer, whose eclectic filmography includes both a remake of Footloose and a dramedy about Sam Jackson tying a nymphomaniac to his radiator, fades into the background for this one. It’s a direct-to-Netflix release for the most part (Philadelphia will have a theatrical run starting this week), and it feels as if it were directed with the small screen in mind. This isn’t to say that there’s any incompetence on display, in fact quite the opposite, but it lacks that theatrical feel. It’s a small complaint, especially since I can’t think of anything more cinematic than Wesley Snipes calling “cut” as the drunk, effete director of Dolemite, D’Urville Martin.
For real, Wesley Snipes shows the fuck up for this one, and it’s a pure delight.
Much like The Disaster Artist before it, Dolemite Is My Name is the kind of delightful film that celebrates the importance of keeping your creative flame alive, no matter how much it feels like your output is unwanted. As Rudy Ray Moore found out, not only was his work accepted by the masses, it has been deemed essential. Where the two films differ is in how it regards its subject. Dolemite Is My Name shows no pity toward its subject, which is just how it should be. Unlike Tommy Wiseau, Moore knew exactly what he was doing. The world just needed to catch up to him.
Dolemite Is My Name opens today at.the Ritz Bourse and the Studio Movie Grill. It comes to Netflix on October 25.