Tuesday February 04, 2020
Movie Review: Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
The first words we hear from Rudy Ray Moore, AKA Dolemite (Eddie Murphy), are these: “I ain’t lying, man. People love me.”
And we do. Eddie Murphy, I mean. Or this Eddie Murphy—the Eddie Murphy we fell in love with back in the early 1980s, before the the huge successes and second thoughts and maybe the weight of being a successful black artist in an often racist country and industry—the burden of that legacy—helped kill the comedy. What did it mean, anyway, making all those white people laugh? And what did that make you? A clown? A minstrel? So I imagined some part of Eddie’s internal dialogue back then. He went from Reggie Hammond, Billie Ray and Axel Foley to one forgettable movie after another. We kept waiting for a revival that never came. Every step forward (“Nutty Professor,” “Dreamgirls,”) was followed by a step back (“Holy Man,” “Norbit”). Movies that seemed like they might be funny (“Pluto Nash,” “Tower Heist”), weren’t. To a generation born in this century, he’s probably best known as Donkey from “Shrek.” Donkey.
Or maybe this would’ve happened even without the race-legacy thing? So many comedians want to be taken seriously: Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey. Then they often have trouble finding their way back to funny.
Here, Eddie finds his way back. “Dolemite is My Name” is the first Eddie Murphy movie I’ve loved since the 1980s. What’s fascinating is he’s playing someone the exact opposite of Eddie Murphy.
Think of it: Murphy was a hit on “SNL” at age 19, a hit in the movies at age 21, a standup phenomenon at 22, and the star of the biggest box office hit of the year, “Beverly Hills Cop,” at age 23. Not many actors were hotter, sooner.
And in “Dolemite” he plays a dumpy, middle-aged man who missed his shot. An early dialogue from Rudy:
How’d my life get so damn small? Came out here with some big plans, Jimmy. I was gonna do it all, just like Sammy Davis Jr. Movies, concerts, TV, everything. This job at Dolphin’s [Records] is supposed to be my temporary day job. Cut to a million years later, it’s all I got.
Murphy makes this believable. There’s hurt in his eyes.
A second later, he’s making us laugh. Going into an alley of winos, he asks if anyone’s seen Ricco, whom he describes as an old bum with no teeth. Upon which, an old bum reveals his toothless gums and laughs. Rudy: “Oh, shit. Guess that didn’t narrow it down at all, did it?”
The movie begins with Rudy Ray Moore, circa 1970, on the bottom. His road to middle-aged success, even legend, begins by finding and tape-recording Ricco and the others, who do a kind of grandiose, rhyming patter—like Muhammad Ali but way dirtier. He memorizes and perfects their bits, adopts the persona of “Dolemite” (“Dolemite is my name/And fucking up motherfuckers in my game”), and becomes a headliner at the club where he used to be the tepid, five-minute warm-up prior to the music. Then he makes a record in his living room, no one will distribute it (too dirty), so he puts it out himself and sells it under the counter wrapped in plain brown paper with a devil sticker on it: “Like some shit you ain’t supposed to have,” he explains. Soon, enough black people are listening to it that the Bihari brothers, famous for distributing R&B, take notice and put it out. Boom, hit. It leads to more, and more, and more.
And it’s not enough. One night, he and friends go see Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page,” a 1974 remake starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and none of them get it. Why are all these white people laughing? (We weren’t, really; it’s a disappointing movie.) There’s a nice moment when Rudy looks back toward the projection room, and sees the beam of light streaming forth. “If I could get up in that light with my own movie?” he tells his friends afterward. “I could be everywhere all at once.”
At this point, we’re about 30 minutes in. The rest of the movie is the making of a movie: “Dolemite.”
I’m curious if this is how it went down—with “The Front Page” being the trigger. That movie was released in mid-December 1974; “Dolemite” was released in late April 1975. Four months doesn’t seem like a lot of time to go from inspiration to distribution—particularly with all the problems Rudy apparently had.
He keeps running into brick walls and bouncing off. For all the Dolemite chest-thumping, that’s his true superpower: overwhelming persistence in the face of overwhelming disinterest. Producers of blaxploitation flicks turn him down as too dumpy. Even his friends are dubious. “You’re not Billy Dee Williams,” Toney (Tituss Burgess, Titus of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), tells him. “You’re a comedy star. Be happy with that.” But he’s not. “I want the world to know I exist,” he says.
He plays on egos to make it happen. Self-important playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) turns him down—until Rudy talks up “Jerry Jones movies.” Self-important actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) turns him down—until Rudy says, “What if we let you direct?” They break into a dilapidated hotel for a set, use white film students behind the camera, while Rudy borrows against future album sales to finance it. The Biharis aren’t cutthroat*; they try to break it to him gently. “We’ll own your albums,” they say.
Bihari: You understand, you’re not supposed to make a movie for the five square blocks of people you know.
Rudy: Well, that’s fine with me. Cause every city in America got them same five blocks.
(*In reality, the Biharis, at least with their R&B stars, were more cutthroat than this.)
I wouldn’t have minded fewer famine-before-feast moments. I.e., It’s 10 minutes before Rudy self-premieres “Dolemite” in Cleveland, and no one’s there, and he looks worried; then suddenly everyone’s there and it’s a hit. The team is taking a limo to the Dimension Films’ premiere but get depressed reading all the negative reviews, and they think they‘re failures; then they pull up to the theater and the place is packed. Etc.
Not Billy Dee
On the Hollywood Elsewhere site, Jeff Wells makes a good comparison between “My Name is Dolemite” and “Ed Wood.” This one, directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), is less artistic than Tim Burton’s, and without anyone like Martin Landau’s Bela Legosi as supporting (though Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Lady Reed comes close), but both movies are about a perpetually enthusiastic man with a crappy vision who gathers a motley crew and makes it happen. The difference? “Plan 9 from Outer Space” wasn’t popular; “Dolemite” was. Rudy Ray Moore kept making movies throughout the ’70s and is now seen as the Godfather of Rap. Longtime fan Snoop Dog even has a cameo here as a Dolphin’s Record DJ.
Would it have been worthwhile to explore the why of the success? Even during the rhyming comedy routines, I didn’t get it; I felt like Rudy and company watching “The Front Page.” I’d also be curious if “Dolemite” was more popular than other blaxploitation flicks. If so, is it because he wasn’t Billy Dee Williams or Richard Roundtree or Jim Brown? You could say he was both wish-fulfillment and identification: Someone who looked like us getting to act like them.
Either way, welcome back, Eddie, We missed you.