Eddie Murphy is his name and making audiences laugh is his game! He was great in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” and over the years the Oscar-nominated actor-comedian found success with “The Nutty Professor” and in animated form (“Shrek,” “Mulan”) but “Dolemite Is My Name” features the best performance by Murphy since 1988’s “Coming To America.” The film is a tribute to Rudy Ray Moore who took Hollywood by storm in the 70s as rapping kung fu pimp Dolemite in a series of blaxploitation films. Murphy conquers the Moore role with the help of a fantastic supporting cast that includes Wesley Snipes and the delightful Da'Vine Joy Randolph. Directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), it’s one of 2019’s best films.
Tarantino revitalized John Travolta’s career with “Pulp Fiction” but the only one who’s going to revitalize Murphy’s career is Eddie Murphy and he does that while performing the same service for Wesley Snipes. It’s hard to believe that the two actors have never worked together. They make a dynamite team and fortunately for us we’ll see them together again next year in “Coming 2 America” the sequel to the 80s film with most of the cast reunited and Brewer once again behind the camera.
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood”), we first see Moore working as the assistant manager of Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop, the infamous L.A. record store with its own radio station and recording studio. Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock have fun cameos as DJs who refuse to play Moore’s records. Yes, apart from his record store gig, Moore worked as a fledgling musician and stand up comedian.
Lightning strikes when Rico (Ron Cephas Jones) a homeless man and Dolphin’s regular begins telling Moore stories culled from African-American folklore. Offered up as limericks, the tales centered on Dolemite, a pimp and all-around bad mofo. Moore offers Rico and his homeless friends booze and cash to tell him more stories which he records and works into new material for his standup routine. With the help of an afro wig, some flashy clothes, and a cane he transforms himself into Dolemite, a rapping pimp that proves to be a big hit on the club circuit.
Moore played the old vaudeville type clubs, usually opening for a musical act. The first time we see Murphy jump on stage as Dolemite its pure magic. At first, the crowd doesn’t know what to think of his x-rated rhymes but soon he’s got them eating out of his hands with a drummer providing a funky beat and musician Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) on piano. Taylor’s band The Soul Rebellion Orchestra would become Moore’s official backup band.
Moore, who was inspired by comedians Richard Pryor and Red Foxx, begins to record Dolemite records which because of their X-rated content were often sold from behind the counter wrapped in brown paper because of the nudity on the album covers. He sold the vinyl out of his car until the Bihari brothers signed him to their L.A. label.
While Moore is on the road touring the Chitlin Circuit, a group of venues across the eastern, southern, and upper midwest part of the country that played host to black musicians, comedians, and entertainers during the segregation era, he meets the plus-sized Lady Reed ( Da'Vine Joy Randolph) an ex-backup singer fresh out of an abusive relationship who eventually becomes his protégé. Randolph is fantastic and a pleasure to watch as the loud and proud Reed who in a heartfelt scene late in the film thanks Moore for believing in her while explaining, “I'm so grateful for what you did for me, cause I'd never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” The Yale School of Drama graduate learned her craft at the same institution that gave us Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett. She may be a new face on the big screen, but Randolph has already conquered Broadway appearing in “Ghost The Musical” as Oda Mae Brown which resulted in a Tony Award nomination. She’s also appeared on TV’s “Empire” and Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.”
The success of the albums prompts Moore to make a Dolemite movie and this is where the film really gets fun. He enlists the help of reluctant playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to write the screenplay and actor D'Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), who had a small role as Diego, the elevator operator in Roman Polanski’s horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” to play the film’s villain Willie Green. The conceited Martin who likes to throw around his Polanski role while name dropping filmmakers like John Cassavetes feels insulted by Moore’s offer but agrees to do the film after Moore lets him direct.
Wesley Snipes is hilarious as the aloof director making this a great comeback for the actor who built a name for himself in the 90s with a slew of action films and heavy dramas. But let’s not forget those comedic performances in “White Men Can’t Jump” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” There is a touch of both films in Snipes’ “Dolemite” performance. In interviews, Rudy Ray Moore would say that he wanted Snipes to play him in a biopic. I think he’d be happy with Snipes being in the film even though he’s not playing Moore.
This is Eddie Murphy at his R-rated best delivering an Oscar-worthy performance reminiscent of “Raw” and his days as a standup comic. Both Murphy and Brewer are big fans of Moore and their passion comes shining through in the laugh out loud comedy with a heart of gold. Moore was a self-made everything and his determination to be much more than just a dreamer makes this one of the most inspiring films of the year. There are several parallels between Murphy and Moore including the resurgence late in their careers. The two were destined to cross paths.
Now showing Studio Movie Grill Pearland and IPIC Houston. In Austin at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Premieres Friday on Netflix.