The business card placed in my hand by a former student read: “Redeemable for one free blowjob.” He had my attention. “I found it inside the sleeve,” he explained as he handed the Rudy Ray Moore comedy LP my way. A spin on the turntable confirmed my worst fears: the brilliance of the endeavor stopped at its outrageous calling card. It took decades — and the release of Dolemite Is My Name — for Moore to make a second impression. It’s the rare biopic that’s bound to leave a stronger impression on viewers than any of the subject’s actual offerings — perhaps even more than that memorable little white card.
Having recently revisited a pair of Moore’s celluloid opuses (Dolemite and Disco Godfather), it’s safe to say that Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda?) had ample room to goof on the comedian’s approach to screen direction. If comparisons to Ed Wood seem to come easily, they should. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were the creative force behind what remains a definitive turning point in Tim Burton’s career. Everything that followed was no match for their down-and-outers dream ballet, a love story between a morphine-soaked legend on his way out (Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi earned a well-deserved Oscar) and a disillusioned naif hailed as “Worst Director Ever!” for generations to come (a never-better Johnny Depp) on his way, well, if not up, then at least a bit further off the ground.
In a world of films so bad they’re scholarly, Wood and Moore occupy prime real estate in the Pantheon. Wood viewed himself as poverty row’s answer to Orson Welles. In Dolemite Is My Name, ego-drunk actor-turned-director D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) mirrors a blaxploitation variation on cine-maverick John Cassavettes. Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) didn’t know which end of the camera to talk into, but that wasn’t a problem: Moore wasn’t in it for the art. He began by gathering a dozen or so of his closest friends at his home to record an album. They were called “party records,” and while Dolemite never found a slot in my parent’s record cabinet, many a weekend night found me dozing off to the sounds of friends and relatives laughing it up over blue comedians Pearl Williams and Belle Barth.
Clad in brightly-colored, wall-to-wall broadloom ensembles, the style of which went out with W.C. Fields carpetbags, Moore’s pimped-out alter ego had earned him enough money in record sales and personal appearances — as in, selling albums out of the trunk of his car — that the next logical step was the big screen. So, an abandoned hotel on Los Angeles’ skid row was converted into Dolemite Studios. Whether recreating some of Dolemite’s more memorable scenes or pulling together the background characters (Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, etc.) to form a family unit, the screenwriters and director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow, Footloose) go to great pains to make it all look so effortless.
It has been a long time since an Eddie Murphy film had generated this much excitement. Not since 48 Hrs. At the time, I was admittedly more interested in seeing the depths of low light level wizardry director Walter Hill and his cinematographer were going to plum than in witnessing the debut feature of another SNL alum. But I wasn’t disappointed on either count. My good will towards Murphy extended just far enough for the unmentionable to be mentioned: “I want to make movies that my kids can see.”
How many times has this pitiable excuse been rolled out to bolster the sagging career of a superstar known for their R-rated revelry? (It’s what precipitated De Niro’s participation in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.) Prior to Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor, all but The Golden Child had been restricted to children without adult guardianship. Life and Bowfinger, both released in 1999, ushered out Murphy’s last most artistically agreeable year. A donkey by Murphy was not my friend, but Shrek brought home enough dough for Murphy to pretty much sit the last decade out.
Given the timeframe of each picture and the proximity of their release, it’s difficult to discuss Dolemite without mentioning at least one of the many advantages it has over Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. I would dare to guess that in the short time she spent on earth, Sharon Tate gave more interviews than Moore’s co-star, Lady Reed. And yet, Tarantino’s female lead is a vain Playmate on a string. Not Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). True to form, the screenwriters’ refusal to ridicule their characters gives way to a love story as goofily touching and memorable as what went on between Wood and Lugosi.
Alexander and Karaszewski have done for Murphy what they did for Burton: they’ve gifted him with the film of his career, a deeply observed and felt characterization of a marginal comedic talent who would not let his vision down, no matter how warped it might have been. Unfortunately, this is a Netflix release, and if the streaming giant had their way, none of us would leave our homes to go to the movies. Unless the film qualifies for glittering prizes come awards season, your one and only shot to see it on a screen may be at the La Paloma. It’s well worth leaving the house for.