5 out of 5 stars.
“Critics don’t know nothing. I don’t even know why they come out in the first place. They don’t even like to have fun. Nobody cares what the critics say.”
Okay, so maybe this line delivered by Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore toward the end of “Dolemite Is My Name” isn’t totally true, from my perspective. But besides being humorous, this bit of dialogue helps form the basis of the film, along with this line that stood out to me: when being challenged by producers considering financing his movie “Dolemite,” Rudy is told that he isn’t “supposed to make a movie for the five square blocks of people you know,” to which he replies: “Well, that’s fine with me. ‘Cause every city in America got those same five blocks. And those folks is going to love it!” Rudy cares deeply for his artistic vision and for the audience that it reaches, and no amount of persuasion from Hollywood big shots is going to change that. That message radiates with such joy from “Dolemite Is My Name,” a biopic of performer Rudy Ray Moore that recreates the wild true story of its subject with stunning accuracy, while being a combination of raunchy, hilarious, inspiring, and uplifting.
Directed by Craig Brewer, the film opens with Rudy working at a record store in 1970s LA while struggling to find an audience both for his stand-up comedy and his music. One day, a homeless man called Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) wanders into the store and begins telling stories about an urban legend called Dolemite. Rudy gets the idea to use these stories for the basis of a new act. He creates a new stage persona in which he becomes Dolemite, dressing as a pimp and telling vulgar stories in rhyme. The act is a huge success with black audiences, and Dolemite quickly becomes a local celebrity—mostly through word of mouth, as his albums are too filthy to be displayed in most stores or played on the radio. While at the movies, Rudy gets the idea to make a Dolemite movie, so that he can bring his act to theaters across the country simultaneously.
A decent portion of the film is focused on the making of the “Dolemite” movie, and it is pure joy, particularly for film fans, to watch unfold. There’s something to be said for Rudy’s can-do attitude and simultaneously entrepreneurial and artistic spirit; he’s always determined to put out the product he wants, but also profit off it as much as possible. This is evident from the very start of the film, as Rudy tries to put out his records, but it’s really apparent when he tries to make and market his movie. He basically gets together his group of friends and fellow comedians and musicians to make the movie, despite knowing nothing about filmmaking, and despite an increasingly frustrated director, writer, and crew. It’s delightful to see a group of people working their creative muscles and having fun doing it, and even if it isn’t by normal standards a “good movie” that they make, the fun they imbue it with defies all criticism and translates to their target audience. It becomes a box office smash playing in limited release, and is now known as one of the great Blaxploitation films.
It’s remarkable just how accurately “Dolemite Is My Name” recreates scenes from “Dolemite” and its sequels; if you aren’t familiar with those movies, the end of this one plays some clips from them for comparison. The colorful 70s costumes and set pieces, as well as the music, are great help define the characters, but nothing does that better than the actors themselves. The film features a large supporting cast and they all have something wonderful to contribute, so let’s just run through all of them. Tituss Burgess, Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson all play Rudy’s friends who become his collaborators as his fame skyrockets; Rudy never becomes one of those people who lets fame change him, and they stay with him. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is fierce as Lady Reed, Rudy’s partner and costar who he picks up while touring and who ends up costarring in his movie. Lady Reed is fascinating because as brassy as she is, she’s incredibly insecure about performing in front of an audience, and Rudy gives her constant encouragement. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jerry Jones, a writer who Rudy hires to write his movie—although his serious ideas and themes of social justice don’t exactly fit with Rudy’s vision. Stealing every scene he’s in is Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, a bigger name actor who agrees to appear in the movie after Rudy also gives him the opportunity to direct, and his irritation at what he perceives as amateurs working with him is consistently hilarious. Also appearing in the film is Kodi Smit-McPhee as a film student brought in to help on the movie, Chris Rock, Bob Odenkirk, Snoop Dogg, and Luenell as Rudy’s aunt.
But this is Eddie Murphy’s movie, and it’s a bit of a comeback for him. Not just because this is the first movie he’s appeared in in three years; it’s also the first really great part he’s had in years, maybe even since his supporting role in 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” He manages to both embody Rudy while remaining distinctly Murphy. He’s funny, irreverent, and irresistibly charismatic, especially when he gets up on stage and speaks in the rhyming cadences of Dolemite. His fast and loud delivery is something that Murphy has always been great at, but he also knows when to slow it down. You can see the moments where his brain starts to tick, as Rudy contemplates his next big move. He makes it impossible not to root for Rudy, whose perseverance as a black man trying to put out content for black audiences in an industry still dominated by white people in power is admirable. By extension, we’re also rooting for Murhpy, who we all know to be talented and fun to watch but has been placed in a string of flops in recent years. This is a role that he is so perfect for, it’s hard to imagine anyone except for Rudy Ray Moore himself playing him.
“Dolemite Is My Name” is the kind of movie that is both so enjoyable and so fascinating, it immediately makes you want to know more about its subject. It’s also the kind of movie that gives you faith in movies, not just because it is great, but because it’s great to see a group of people making the sort of film they want to and being successful at it. Critics may have hated “Dolemite” when it was released in the mid-70s, but the story behind it is way more interesting than the movie itself. I don’t think “Dolemite Is My Name” will have that problem.
Runtime: 117 minutes. Rated R.