Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) believes his life missed out somewhere along the way, as by this time, in his mid-forties, he dreamt he should have been the next Sammy Davis Jr, a song and dance man with a line in comedy. That Moore is still trying to flog boxes of his nineteen-sixties singles a decade later when nobody wanted them ten years ago anyway is an indication of where his career is at, and he makes ends meet working in a record store while he keeps one foot in the showbiz door as an MC at a local nightclub, where his hackneyed material goes down about as well as those old singles. But he still has his lust for glory, and one day inspiration strikes: listen to the down and outs.
Moore's breakout in the movies was Dolemite, a shoddy but bursting with energy low budget effort that was a relatively huge hit for him and prompted him to create a bunch of equally crazy and impoverished flicks aimed squarely at the audience who loved his blue routines on his "party records" of the seventies. Less a groundbreaking Richard Pryor and more a black Tom Laughlin, his self-funded mini-epics revelled in bad taste and badass attitude; he was no actor and as a comedian he was a novelty act rooted to the decade of his heyday, yet his sheer chutzpah carried him through a career that started to wane after that novelty wore off and he was as fashionable as a pet rock.
This biopic could very easily have treated Moore as an object of ridicule, but the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski contained genuine respect for this man who clung onto his ambitions and realised some of them on his own terms, purely because damn few others were willing to take a chance on him. The real coup was casting Eddie Murphy in the lead, as while he was deeply unconvincing as the lead if you knew the Moore movies - Murphy essentially put his own interpretation on the material instead of an impersonation - it was no coincidence that there were welcomed echoes of Bowfinger abounding, just about the best he had been in comedy until here.
Every movie buff has their favourite Murphy role, some even remain loyal to his standup despite some serious changes in popular taste making them look a lot more offensive now than they were then, but as the most famous man on the planet for a while in the eighties, he is a source of fascination. There was no doubting his charisma and talent, but there was also no doubting his keenness to squander that talent on movies that did him little justice, and considering his popularity he had far more duds in his filmography than gems. Dolemite is My Name was embraced by his old school fans as something akin to a homecoming: at last he was swearing again, and more importantly he was funny doing it! Yet it was possible to overpraise a film that too often came across as corny.
The screenwriters had tried this trick before with Ed Wood, a genuine masterpiece, and it was a tad discomfiting to see them recreate the same beats of that, from the jokes about incompetence and overestimation of the characters' ability to the scenes of sentimentality, those latter not really resonating when it was Rudy Ray Moore we were asked to feel sympathy with, a man whose shtick was not exactly comfortable with that kind of treacle. Also, director Craig Brewer tended to shoot the entire thing like a TV movie; now, Moore's films may be cheap, but there's no mistaking them for real movies, and here it seemed the Netflix brand was informing the technique, so it did not matter there were crude, seventies-style gags and nudity, it was too studied to be convincing as a recreation of the time. Nevertheless, the cast were game, with Wesley Snipes almost stealing the show as the numbly horrified, ever so slightly camp director of Moore's magnum opus Dolemite, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph investing in the part of Moore's nightclub sidekick with some nice comic timing. But given everyone even slightly famous was getting a biopic by this point, it was not as surprising as you might like. Music by Scott Bomar.