It’s funny how you sometimes develop respect for
something you first thought was just a cultural oddity. Schlockmania first
experienced Rudy Ray Moore’s films in college as party movies, the kind of
thing that offered easy laughs via poor performances, wacky storylines, cheap
production values, etc. However, there was something about these movies that
inspired repeat viewings – and this offered a lesson in how entertainment value
doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being slick or “good” in
the conventional sense.
After enough screenings, a respect developed for the
passionate creators who fought budget, lack of experience and film biz
indifference to develop work that continues to resonate after a lot of
big-budget “good movies” have faded away. Moore and his band of rebels took on a heroic
quality, one cemented in Schlockmania’s mind forever after seeing Moore
introduce a screening of Dolemite at
the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to an admiring audience who roared with
delight at the film’s quirks and attitude.
Finally, a Moore biopic has arrived in the form of Dolemite In My Name and it views him in
the right “heroic underdog” frame. This film covers a key slice of
Moore’s career, starting with Moore (Eddie Murphy) as a failed recording artist
and nightclub M.C. sliding into middle age but still pining for success.
Inspired by a wino’s folklore-derived rhyming humor, he refashions himself as a
comedian who delivers raunchy humor in a proto-rap style. Once he achieves modest success, he realizes
the only to take things further is make a movie – and he finds himself climbing
the mountain once again, risking all for a dream that will justify his
The above synopsis might sound serious for something
that is at least half comedy but it also accurately reflects the dramatic core
that lurks beneath the laughs and retro-camp elements of the film. Dolemite Is My Name takes Moore’s
yearning for success and the hard work he did to become a cult figure
seriously. Appropriately, writers Larry
Alexander and Scott Karaszewski put the viewer right alongside Moore as he
figures out how to develop the right persona for his audience and works out his
own unorthodox methods to producing work outside the system (this approach is
similar to their script for the acclaimed Ed
Wood, which feels like an older sibling to this film). You might chuckle at Moore’s slipups along the
way but you’ll also be won over by his thrill of discovery when things click
Dolemite Is My Name also couches Moore’s success in the frame of teamwork. He meets a lot of colorful characters along the way and is willing to help them out, most notably Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a single mom he mentors into stand-up comedy and later co-stardom in Dolemite. Similarly compelling is the odd but successful partnership he forms with community-minded playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who becomes Moore’s screenwriter/co-star, and Nick (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a film school student who becomes a proficient cinematographer on the film set. The willingness of these characters to support each other in good times and bad becomes genuinely touching as the film progresses.
It also helps that Dolemite
Is My Name is skillfully directed by Craig Brewer of Hustle & Flow fame. Visually, he manages a style that suggests
Scorcese lensing a blaxploitation homage but what really makes his work tick is
how he captures the thrilling rush of creative work. He’s not afraid to allow
the audience to have a laugh at the ragged edges of Moore’s film production but
he also shows the excitement of getting a scene in the can on a shoestring
budget and the way it fosters a bond between Moore and his cast and crew. By
the end of the shoot, it’s hard not to cheer them on.
Brewer also gets the right blend of comedic and dramatic moments from a gifted cast. Murphy is the obvious centerpiece, giving his most inspired performance in years as he mixes his famous camera-friendly charm and gift for off-hand wit with a newfound gravitas. He can make you laugh effortlessly but the way he expresses vulnerability and longing in key scenes is what really draws the audience in. There’s also strong work from Wesley Snipes, who is sarcastically hilarious as actor-turned-reluctant Dolemite director D’Urville Martin, and Key, who impressively channels the voice and mannerisms of Jones. That said, the best support comes from Randolph: the story poses her as Moore’s most reliable ally and a moment at the end where she expresses gratitude to him for his mentorship is tearjerker-caliber material.
In short, expect more from Dolemite Is My Name than a few laughs about a blaxploitation camp classic. It accurately recreates all the wack kung-fu, wild fashions and cardboard line deliveries of Dolemite but it also reminds you the people behind all those moments were earnestly pursuing a dream with full heart and soul invested. It meant doubly as much to this crew because they were (and are) historically underrepresented on the big screen – and the resulting chronicle of their rough-edged efforts is as poignant as it is nostalgically entertaining.