'Dolemite Is My Name': Film Review | TIFF 2019

A straightforward telling of one of Hollywood's weirder success stories.

Eddie Murphy plays the man behind a blaxploitation cult favorite in Craig Brewer's biopic, which co-stars Wesley Snipes.

A true-life underdog story that spawned a pop-culture touchstone, the birth of Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite character holds an obvious appeal for Eddie Murphy, having paved the way for brash, foul-mouthed black comedians who controlled rooms with charisma before they even got to a punchline. (Though it certainly helped that all of Moore's spiritual descendants were vastly more talented than he was.) The pimpin', braggin', karate-choppin' hero would also seem ideal material for director Craig Brewer, who made his name convincing many Sundancers to root for a pimp in Hustle & Flow and then doubled down on sexploitation in the bizarre Black Snake Moan.

Odd, then, that the pair's Dolemite Is My Name is such a conventional-feeling biopic, one with its share of laughs and surprising anecdotes but little of the enduring strangeness that kept the 1975 Dolemite rattling around in our cultural memory. A welcome opportunity to see Murphy perform for adults, but not among his best starring vehicles (after Bowfinger, it's not even his best movie about lovably incompetent filmmakers), it nevertheless should fare well with home viewers when Netflix delivers it next month.

Moore is already a has-been when we meet him: He's working in a record store, failing to convince a co-worker (Snoop Dogg) to push copies of the mediocre R&B singles he cut years ago when he thought he could make it in music. He moonlights at a nightclub, telling really bad jokes before his pal Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) takes the stage with his band.

But an encounter with an aging homeless man plants a seed in his head: As the man is being kicked out of the record store, he briefly captivates bystanders with a soliloquy drawing on ancient storytelling traditions. Wondering if he might adapt the stuff for a new nightclub act, Moore takes a wad of cash and some booze into the streets and records all the old homeless men with rhymes to sling.

Back in Moore's apartment, the origin story gels: He practices and refines old stories, most of which involve insanely exaggerated sexual boasting, and pulls an old wig out of a closet to help him leave his real personality behind. He records a Redd Foxx-style party record, and when no company will release the obscene thing, he presses it up himself, packages it in an intentionally disreputable brown bag and starts selling them like crazy out of his trunk. Soon enough, a real record label comes calling.

Wearing a new persona every night — we mostly see him dressed as a pimp, though the film downplays the exploitative aspects of the Dolemite character — Moore goes on the road, playing shows on the "chitlin' circuit" that look like a helluva lot of fun. Audiences love him, and his record even makes the Billboard charts. He teams up with a woman who calls herself Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a platonic partnership that, given Randolph's appeal, the movie might have developed further. And then, befuddled by the unentertaining stuff that white people help succeed at the box office (in this case, a flick by some hack named Billy Wilder), he decides the black community needs to see him on the big screen.

What ensues is a true-story version of imaginary shoestring movie productions we've seen many times: Moore and his gang of friends are rejected by legit film companies (if AIP can be called legit); stumble into useful resources (a vacant hotel, currently a junkie squat, that they transform into a soundstage); and hire the requisite white-boy film students who actually know how to put film in a camera. Most important, they find a co-star with movie cred: D'Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) has done TV and played small parts in big movies. Moore can only convince him to co-star in this rinky-dink picture by offering to let him direct as well. (Affecting a fancier-than-thou pretentiousness, Snipes steals his first scene and several others.)

Before the first shot rolls, Martin is voicing the complaints viewers have made for decades about the spellbindingly clumsy Dolemite — and unlike the also-skeptical film students (led by Kodi Smit-McPhee as cinematographer), the director never gives in to the esprit de corps. But the shoot is an enjoyable adventure, and Moore's experience releasing the film reminds us that when a packed cinema is primed to have a good time, even a turd can sometimes entertain.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski worked these fields a quarter-century ago in Ed Wood, another tale of a man who should never have made a movie but left behind films we still enjoy. Comparing the two pics doesn't really serve this one well. Johnny Depp created an indelible character there, where Murphy (who looks nothing like Moore) must devote his energies to conjuring Moore's proto-rap storytelling cadence.

Moreover, Tim Burton marshaled his craft departments to create an era vastly more convincing than the one Brewer offers. (On the sidewalk after the premiere, a veteran performer famous for transformations walked with a companion, the two of them wondering aloud whether the bad wigs were meant as some misguided homage to the original film.) Dolemite Is My Name is often quite fun, and it celebrates a spirit in which will-do perseveres even in an absence of can-do. But an outsider artist who created something as weirdly funky as Dolemite deserves a portrait to match.

Production company: Netflix
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg, Ron Cephas Jones, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tip 'TI' Harris, Luenell, Tasha Smith, Wesley Snipes
Director: Craig Brewer
Screenwriters: Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander
Producers: John Davis, John Fox, Eddie Murphy
Executive producers: Charisse Hewitt-Webster, Michael Beugg
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Clay Griffith
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Billy Fox
Composer: Scott Bomar
Casting directors: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Rated R, 117 minutes