Dolemite Is My Name

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Just as we’re all thinking Eddie Murphy hasn’t done anything in the last 10 years but make bad movies and babies, along comes this solid performance as blacksploitation actor Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolemite.

First, let’s stop with everyone claiming Moore is the godfather of rap. That’s crap. Everyone always wants to anoint people the first to do certain things. Moore was doing schtick that Redd Foxx (Sanford & Son) did on albums. Foxx did hardcore, X-rated jokes, but Dolemite would combine his rhymes with a beat underneath him. That’s hardly “rapping.” The start of rap’s popularity is with Sylvia Robinson (she had a hit with “Love is Strange” in the mid-50s, as part of Mickey & Sylvia). Her son and his friends would rap on the playground, and she thought it would work as songs, and got the ball rolling. She eventually created Sugar Hill, the label that gave us the first rap hit — Rapper’s Delight (they also had my favorite rap act of all time — Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five). In my opinion, the only thing Dolemite added to the creation of the rap genre, is his pronunciation of “biotch” — which Snoop Dogg later popularize.

Enough about the history of rap. Since “Dolemite” was more of a raunchy comedian (and not the godfather of that, as a few others did that first, too), let’s talk about this story. The biggest problem is that it’s about a rag-tag group of guys trying to make a movie, and they have no clue as to how to do that. This was done in a more entertaining (and humorous) way in The Disaster Artist (James Franco). Many of the scenes felt too similar (especially the closing credits, where we see the real clips of the Dolemite movie).

Now, the first part of the film was much more interesting. Watching Moore quickly trying to pitch some of his old records to a local DJ (Snoop Dog), who has no interest in playing them…is intriguing. Even watching him trying to develop a voice on stage as a comedian, is something that makes you wonder about stand-ups. All the ones we’ve heard over the years that have a distinct cadence in their voice (Andrew Dice Clay, Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Gilbert Gottfried, Emo Philips, Judy Tenuta, Dennis Wolfberg — look him up, he was brilliant) makes you wonder how they came up with that style of speaking.

A lot of credit should go to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They were two USC roommates who now have a great career bringing biopics to the screen about people we know little about: Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, Bob Crane, Andy Kaufman, and Margaret Keane (Big Eyes). They’ve already got scripts for the Marx Brothers, Robert Ripley, and the Village People in the works, too. And it’s a safe bet that most people don’t know anything about Dolemite.

It’s lucky for these screenwriters that director Craig Brewer did the film. I loved his Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan (Samuel Jackson), and he’s currently directing Murphy in Coming to America 2.

Critics are claiming this is Murphy’s best performance on screen, and I disagree. What might hurt his chances with Oscar voters is that Netflix made the movie, and it’s going to have a limited theatrical release. And, Murphy isn’t even the best performance in this movie. That would go to Wesley Snipes, who plays D’Urville Martin, a small time actor in blacksploitation movies (with bit parts in films like Rosemary’s Baby and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?). He ended up directing the Dolemite movie and few other films, and I would’ve much rather seen the story about his character.

It is interesting to see how Dolemite “borrows” stories from the town drunk, who shows up in his record store telling humorous stories that often involve bragging about who he’s had sex with or beat up. Instead of dressing like a homeless man, he decides to go the pimp route on stage, punctuating his stories with music. The crowds eat up this style of storytelling. It’s funny, because Eddie Murphy famously told a story on stage in his comedy movie decades ago, about Bill Cosby calling him and telling him he didn’t need to work so blue with his comedy (I know, that’s strange considering what we now know about Cosby; and there is a funny Cosby mention in this film). It makes me wonder what Cosby thought of Dolemite back in the day, when his underground records were selling so well.

Making a good living selling out small clubs and records out of his trunk wasn’t enough for Dolemite. After seeing Billy Wilder’s terrific The Front Page (Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon), and not finding it the least bit funny…he decides making movies he thinks are funny (and with karate), is the way to go. The great thing about that decision is we get to see a terrific cast brought into the film. The bad thing is that…they’re just not as funny as they should be. Craig Robinson is perfectly cast as a singer (since he does comedy and sings). It’s nice to see Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and one of my favorites — Keegan-Michael Key. But again, none of them are really funny. Neither is Chris Rock in his one scene, as a DJ trying to promote Dolemite’s show. The funny and interesting character is D’Urville Martin, who they see in a strip club and convince to direct the movie.

The film isn’t as moving as it tries to be. Mostly because it’s hard to have sympathy for a character that basically stole a lot of his material (you keep waiting for that to circle back around and bite him in the butt). Also, you don’t find him all that talented, so rooting for him to succeed isn’t quite what it should be. Just as you didn’t root for the filmmakers in Disaster Artist, or you didn’t care that Dirk Diggler became a druggie loser in Boogie Nights. Sure, it seems like Dolemite is a nice guy. Especially when we see him befriend a female singer that has it out with her cheating husband before one of his shows. Although that just made me wonder why this movie is playing it so safe with this material. They show Dolemite to be such a nice guy to those working for him, or to a young fan in one scene. He’s never doing drugs, or having sex with groupies at shows. Was he really that nice a person off stage? Why is the film not edgier?

The other small problem I have is, despite all these critics claiming it’s one of the funniest movies of the year…it’s really not. It’s funny in parts, sure. But never hysterical (although my wife disagrees with me on that point). The whole production, despite great production values, feels a bit uninspired.

For those critics that claim this is the best role of Murphy’s career, I’d disagree by naming his roles in Coming to America, Dreamgirls, Bowfinger, The Nutty Professor, Beverly Hills Cop, and 48 Hours (even though with those last two films, he’s basically playing himself).

The movie’s message of never giving up on your dreams is a bit hokey at times, but you mostly leave the theatre feeling good and laughing enough that you don’t feel you wasted your time watching these characters.

Dolemite might not be dyn-o-mite, but it’s a’right.

3 stars out of 5. 



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