As its title character might put it, “Dolemite Is My Name” is a total motherf—kin’ blast. It tells the story — all true, all outrageous — of one of the most successful blaxploitation films of the ’70s, the insanely over-the-top and borderline inept “Dolemite” (1975), and of how that movie came to be. And it turns the story into a celebration of the effrontery of African-American showbiz. One definition of soul, given the history of racism in this country, is that it’s about the art of making more out of less. Soul food grew out of the fact that slaves were given the lowliest cuts of meat (pigs’ feet, etc.); they took those leftover slabs and turned them into America’s greatest homegrown cuisine. Rudy Ray Moore, played by Eddie Murphy with a motormouth brashness that won’t quit (and a twinkle of sweetness behind it), is dealing with his own version of slim pickins’. He longs to be a star, but what he lacks, at least in any major discernible way, is talent.
It’s 1970, and Rudy is a Los Angeles record-store clerk in his doughy mid-40s who has had a few mild flings with show business. He recorded some R&B singles in the ’50s and early ’60s, like the Little Richard knockoff “Ring a Ling Dong,” and he did some comedy as well. But now he’s working as an MC at an L.A. nightclub, where he gets five minutes a night if he’s lucky, and no one could care less about his bad jokes. He’s a has-been who never was, the sort of middle-aged crank who disses Marvin Gaye and Redd Foxx for being lucky enough to get the breaks that Rudy deserved.
Rudy, unlike the stars he’s jealous of, isn’t an artist. But he’s a fearless hustler, always pushing himself, spinning tributes to his own greatness out of thin air. (That, in its way, is talent.) After a homeless spieler comes into the record store jabbering about “Afro-American history” and the legend of Dolemite, Rudy gets an idea. He’ll hang out for a night with the local “liquor-store wise men” (i.e., vagrants) and trick up their obscene patter into an act. It’s an act feeding on fumes. Rudy reaches into his closet and finds a green jacket that looks like it was made out of upholstery from an old couch, puts on a wig that’s like a pre-Jheri curl ‘fro, and struts up onto the stage as a “pimp” named Dolemite who tells tall tales in unprintable rhyme. Only now, hiding behind a “character,” Rudy has got the confidence of a superhero.
Onstage, Dolemite speaks in couplets that sound like X-rated nursery rhymes (“He heard your daddy’s a pimp, and your mama’s a whore! He saw you in the jungle selling your ass door-to-door!”). And he delivers them with such lip-smacking bravura that the crowd goes wild. It’s pure vaudeville street burlesque, and Rudy knows how to sell it. As a straight-up comedian, he’s third-rate, but as Dolemite (his version of a folklore hero like Richard Pryor’s Mudbone), he’s a deliriously foul-mouthed cult hit. And so he sets about recording an album. At home. With a cover that feature his own shameless nude portly self, along with a buxom sister, all to make the statement that Rudy is an entertainer who’s ready, in every way, to get it on.
Eddie Murphy hasn’t had a role he could sink his teeth into with this much feisty glee since…it’s hard to say when. “Dreamgirls”? No, this is a much better character. “The Nutty Professor”? He was fine and dandy in those films, but you might have to go all the way back to the ’80s to find a Murphy performance driven by this much pleasurable funky verve.
He plays Rudy as a cheap but priceless carny barker of his own ego. When Rudy stands on stage, in full cry, and delivers a rhyme like “I once walked from New York City to the Deep Deep South, just to slap a mother—er in his mother—in’ mouth,” you giggle at the sheer balls-out crazy joy of it. But Murphy also gives Rudy a hunger that’s about more than success. He’s a middle-aged loser who’s got nothing, who wants to be a star so that he can exist. He’s got few opportunities, thanks to the built-in racist barriers of the American system, but the way he triumphs could only happen in America. He takes nothing and turns it into something.
“Dolemite Is My Name” was directed by Craig Brewer, the gifted director of “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan” (who then got lost in the kitsch nostalgia of his misbegotten “Footloose” remake), and though he does a meticulous job here, the film’s true auteurs are Larry Karaszewki and Scott Alexander, the screenwriting team that created — and, for 25 years, have specialized in — the genre I think of as Biopics About the People You Wouldn’t Make Biopics About. People like Edward D. Wood Jr. Larry Flynt. Andy Kaufman. Walter and Margaret Keane. “Dolemite Is My Name” falls right into that tasty offbeat tradition of can-you-believe-this? outer-fringes-of-pop ironic celebration.
The movie becomes the story of how Rudy, in 1974, takes his Dolemite character from the stand-up comedy stage to the big screen, all by putting together a so-slaspdash-it’s-nutty independent blaxploitation crime-thriller production that he finances, to a degree, out of his own pocket, using the proceeds from his comedy-album sales. (He’s also got a few sleazy backers.) “Ed Wood” is the “Citizen Kane” of this genre, yet as Rudy begins to make his movie, “Dolemite Is My Name” becomes more reminiscent of two films that Karaszewski and Alexender didn’t write, but that owe a deep debt to their aesthetic. One of them is “Badasssss!,” Mario Van Peebles’ enthralling drama about how his father, Melvin Van Peebles, made “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song,” the 1971 independent landmark that changed the course of African-American cinema (and, arguably, of American culture in general). The other is “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s delightfully depraved comedy about the making of the too-awful-to-be-believed midnight movie “The Room.”
“Dolemite Is My Name” tells the story of a black man trying to make and market a film in a world full of shut doors, so it’s about a struggle that’s on some level heroic. At the same time, the movie he’s making is no “Sweetback.” It’s more like an unintentional parody of “Sweetback” — a what-the-hell riff on the whole blaxploitation cosmos, with Rudy playing his own version of Black Caesar or Willie Dynamite: a guy who’s got the killer attitude and the mac-daddy wardrobe, but is basically an out-of-shape fake actor pretending, not very hard, that he knows kung fu.
The tale of how the movie gets shot will be candy for a certain kind of movie buff, because it’s all about the details — the way Rudy converts a druggie-squatter hotel into a film studio, or hires Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), a socially conscious playwright, to do the script (Jones has to keep convincing himself that the gonzo trash they’re making is a movie that’s “keeping it real”), or the way that he hires D’Urville Martin, a professional actor who had a small role in “Rosemary’s Baby,” to direct. Martin doesn’t do much besides slurp from his flask and yell “action” and “cut,” but Wesley Snipes plays him with an exquisitely weary faux-aristocratic contempt that turns him into a cross between James Baldwin and Huggy Bear.
As delectably done as “Dolemite Is My Name” is, the movie, at a solid two hours, goes on too long, and based on the modest proceeds generated by films like “Ed Wood” and “Badasssss!,” I doubt it will appeal to a very wide audience. (It’s a Netflix film, so we’ll never know.) Yet it tells a tale that’s at once uproarious and inspiring. Rudy, in a funny way, thinks like a corrupt studio executive (he wants more explosions! more fantasy! more pow!). Yet even when his movie is completed, he has to fight to get it distributed — the fate of his entire career comes down to one four-walled midnight show in Indianapolis. The rest, though, is history, and irresistible history at that. “Dolemite” wound up grossing $10 million (the equivalent of $50 million today), and as “Dolemite Is My Name” suggests, audiences laughed at it and with it at the same time. Rudy Ray Moore, putting on his pimp suit, had an instinct for strutting hyperbole that was honest in its very fakery. And his penchant for badass couplets made him, along with Muhammad Ali, one of the forerunners of rap. Not a shabby legacy for someone who created a piece of ludicrous grindhouse trash but invested it with soul.