Movies about the making of “bad” movies — like Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist — are usually chronicles of earnest but nearsighted visionaries who don’t realize their work will be received ironically.
Dolemite Is My Name is another matter. This one stars Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, a failed singer and struggling comedian who, late in his career, develops a foulmouthed stage character whom audiences love, and builds a movie around him, capitalizing on the blaxploitation craze of the 1970s.
Decades later, comedians still debate whether Moore intended his campy low-budget laugher to be funny, but Murphy is of the opinion that the canny Moore knew what he was doing at every phase of the project, and plays Moore that way — shrewd, driven and appealingly generous, sharing his corner of the stage with others he manages to help along the way.
Our first glimpse of Moore is of a hardworking showman, trying to get his old records in front of uninterested DJs (Snoop Dogg in a cameo), badgering managers to get a few extra minutes a night and telling jokes as a nightclub MC.
None of this is working until Moore starts recording the profane monologues of the homeless men who make him laugh. He develops this into a stage character — Dolemite — who catches fire, and gives Moore, at last, an entertainment product he can sell. It’s key to Murphy’s view of Moore that he is as much salesman as artist, though Dolemite’s rhyming monologues are credited as being foundational for hip-hop.
Moore is also insanely hardworking. He handles distribution on his own, bootlegging records at independent stores because the material is too foul for airplay, and becoming enough of a phenomenon to catch the attention of deep-pocketed investors who agree to leverage Moore’s dream of making a Dolemite movie.
Moore is no deluded visionary — more like a filmmaking Rocky who just wants to finish, and director Craig Brewer has fun staging underdog making-of scenes. Moore finds a name actor (Wesley Snipes) in a strip club, dragoons students from UCLA’s film school, and sneaks into the vacant, shuttered Dunbar hotel, stealing electricity from the utility poles and building stages in the abandoned building. The hotel was once a mecca for A-list African American entertainers, and there is a nice moment when the production gets rolling and the soundtrack invokes Louis Armstrong, whose tilted and dusty picture can be seen on the wall of the old hotel.
The movie isn’t as funny as we might have expected from the return of Murphy, whose earlier bad movie chronicle Bowfinger is a neglected example of the genre. But it’s often unexpectedly sweet. There is nice relationship between Moore and a woman (Philly’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph) whom he befriends on the road, and makes a costar of in Dolemite, which becomes another self-distributed hit for Moore, and eventually a national phenomenon.
Today, a modern version of Moore might be distributing his wares on YouTube or TikTok, but part of the appeal is the way it reminds us — in scenes of audiences roaring at Dolemite’s campy adventures — of the communal experience movie theaters provide.
Dolemite is My Name. Directed by Craig Brewer. With Eddie Murphy, Snoop Dogg, Wesley Snipes, and Bob Odenkirk. Distributed by Netflix.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parents guide: R (language)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse; streaming on Netflix Oct. 25.