"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Dolemite Is My Name

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is a dream come true – topnotch director, writers and cast making a beautiful, warm, well produced triumph-of-the-underdog epic about Rudy Ray Moore, the small time club singer who reinvented himself by selling dirty comedy records out of the trunk of his car and then strutting his way into independent filmmaking. The script is by kings of the oddball biopic Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, MAN ON THE MOON, The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and it’s got a whole lot in common with their best film, ED WOOD. It’s another story about an L.A. misfit perceived as a failure who, through tenacity and lack of self consciousness, puts together a family of people to will their silly, awesome dreams into reality.

ED WOOD glorifies people whose work was and continues to be made fun of, arguing that the passion and personality behind these works imbues them with an artistic purity and value that they hadn’t previously been given credit for. Moore and friends work with a similar scrappily amateurish zeal, but they in fact made a hit movie that, at least in some parts, was intended to be laughed at. So the happy ending in this one is real!

Another way this is different: it’s very much in color. We already got the hint from the opening credits of HUSTLE & FLOW that director Craig Brewer had an eye for ‘70s style, but here he gets to go all the way. And costume designer Ruth E. Carter (DO THE RIGHT THING, BLACK PANTHER) does much more than the Lord’s work of re-creating the outrageous Dolemite jackets and hats. This is a repository of wide collars and bold prints on polyester that’s practically pornographic to someone like me.

As it says on the poster right here, EDDIE MURPHY is Rudy Ray Moore, and I’m not sure he’s ever been better. I was a little concerned after the trailer showed him doing less of a Moore impression than I expected, but the movie convincingly portrays something I never knew: Rudy wasn’t really like that. I mean, of course he wasn’t, but the Rudy of the movie is a normal guy who has doubts about himself and can even be shy. But he creates this braggadocious, larger than life Dolemite character and he transforms, like a super hero. He even has to wear a wig! But it’s empowering.

There is some moral ambiguity to this origin story. The original Dolemite poem and many of his other routines are not his original creations, they come from the oral tradition. Rudy gives cash and alcohol to some old homeless guys to record their poems and jokes so he can memorize them. He does punch up the jokes and come up with his own way to deliver them. And I think there’s kind of an interesting arc that the stories of his ancestors pass to him this new confidence and inspiration that in the movie he explicitly passes to another generation and through the biopic he passes to the viewers. Anyway, his friends think he’s crazy, but it works. He’s speaking to audiences who grew up hearing these stories, and they love the way he tells them.

Then his friends are supportive, and it’s a great cast playing the real people who helped him make his movies. Mike Epps (RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE) plays co-star Jimmy Lynch, Craig Robinson (GET ON UP) plays band leader Ben Taylor, Tituss Burgess (SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE) plays producer Theodore Toney. Wesley God Damn Snipes is pretty funny playing DOLEMITE director/co-star D’Urville Martin, an established actor they recruit after recognizing him at a strip club. And I like the dynamic between Rudy and screenwriter/co-star Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key, THE PREDATOR), a serious playwright who he convinces to write DOLEMITE as a way to Make A Difference.

Rudy’s discovery of and friendship with comedian Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, Empire), better known as Queen Bee in DOLEMITE, is very moving. He finds her in a bad situation and recognizes talent in her. In turn she becomes not only the powerhouse performer he thought she could, but a confidante and pep talker. I don’t know how much or little dramatic license is involved, but this sensitivity gives a different context to the sexist humor of so many of Rudy’s jokes.

Though it’s often played for laughs that D’Urville Martin cares more about technical craftsmanship than anyone else on the production, it’s notable that one of his concerns is whether the white cinematographer knows how to light black skin. I have to admit I first heard a discussion of that issue in recent years, and I’d never thought about it before. This brief conversation says so much about the importance of diversity in the film industry. He wants knowledge that a black cinematographer would be more likely to have, but they have to use a white crew because they haven’t found any black people trained to use the equipment. And because they’re using film students. Who has the money to attend film school? And the notion that it’s possible to get a job on a film crew?

D’Urville, at least as portrayed here, has little respect for this movie or, it seems, the more professional blaxploitation movies he’s been in. He prefers to namedrop Polanski and Cassavetes (whose DIY ethics he flatteringly compares Rudy’s to). And Rudy and friends treat him as a huge star for being in ROSEMARY’S BABY, but they also tease him for only playing an elevator operator in that one. He wanted to be in “real movies,” but at that time there weren’t many opportunities for black actors to star in those. So he’s still remembered mainly for things like the CHARLEY movies, BLACK CAESAR, FIVE ON THE BLACK HAND SIDE, and yes, DOLEMITE.

(There’s also a funny mirror image of that in the white actor [John Michael Herndon] who says he mostly plays bad guys in black movies.)

I like how they mount their argument for the importance of representation. Rudy and friends go to see Billy Wilder’s THE FRONT PAGE because they read it was a great comedy, but it turns out to be not for them at all. There are so many different versions of this dynamic: the meat and potatoes horror fans bummed out by the slow burn festival hit that was hyped for months, my mom renting GOODFELLAS because it was nominated for Oscars. In this case Rudy and friends look so confused as to what these white people are laughing at. They feel left out, but it’s also a eureka moment for Rudy: There are many people who think the same things are funny that we think are funny, and there aren’t movies being made for them. We could be the ones to make them. So it’s both an important thing to do and a good business idea.

The representation in DOLEMITE extends beyond race and class. When Lady Reed says she hasn’t seen “people like me” in movies she’s probly not just talking about black women, but large women. And Rudy is an aspirational figure portraying himself as a cocky badass beloved and irresistible to large groups of women despite what one gatekeeper called his “doughy” figure.

In any biopic, especially of an artist, they have a greatest hits thing going, they have to figure out how to fit in their most famous songs or TV appearances or incidents or whatever. Luckily Rudy was mainly just known for comedy routines and movies, and they stick to the making of the first movie, so it never feels by-the-numbers. There’s at least one big cheat – putting a classic scene from THE HUMAN TORNADO into DOLEMITE:

(If I made this movie there’s no way it wouldn’t have done that same instant replay on some real life moment.)

But high on the list of things people love about DOLEMITE is his insults like “You no-business, born-insecure, junkyard motherfucker!” and “That rat-soup-eatin, insecure honky motherfucker!” I can’t believe they actually did it, and pulled it off, but these filmatists made the genesis of those lines into an emotional scene about Rudy’s self esteem and his childhood, and gave context to the always-conspicuous “insecure” part. It’s almost like the thing you would joke about for a parody Rudy Ray Moore biopic, except it got my eyes watering. Beautiful.

This is pretty much a perfect movie – funny, warm, inspirational, a celebration of not only Rudy Ray Moore, but of black culture in general, and the DIY spirit, and succeeding without selling out, and people who never give up on creativity, even when the world tells them they’re old, or washed up, or a failure. And since much of the soundtrack is based around the original DOLEMITE theme song, it’s a celebration of the funk. I’m glad I got to see it in a theater – I might even go again even though it’ll be on Netflix on Friday.

trivial tidbits for Dolemiteites:

* I always thought it was great that the cinematographer of DOLEMITE, Nicholas von Sternberg, was the son of Josef von Sternberg. So I was excited that he’s a major character in the movie, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (THE ROAD). They don’t mention that bit of trivia, but they do say his name.

* The first time I saw Moore live I bought an autographed Dolemite backscratcher. In the movie there’s a scene with a merchandise table (including yo-yos!) and you can see some of the backscratchers at the top

* In the scene where he returns to the record store as a celebrity I’m pretty sure I saw someone waving the headshot that I got autographed at the same show – it’s a photo of him when he much older. Historically inaccurate!

* I was glad they mentioned BILLY JACK as another movie that was four-walled. Sort of the pioneer I believe. I’d watch a biopic of him too.

MY PREVIOUS WRITINGS ON RUDY RAY MOORE (in chronological order):

RUDY RAY MOORE: RUDE – in 2000 I crudely reviewed Moore’s standup movie, which I ironically describe as “a live concert film in the style of the Eddie Murphy standup pictures he did back when he was trying to copy Richard Pryor instead of dress up in a bunch of funny disguises and fart.”

PETEY WHEATSTRAW, THE DEVIL’S SON-IN-LAW – I reviewed Moore’s horror comedy (obliquely referenced in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME) in 2002. I bought the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray for Halloween viewing, so I may write more on this one soon

SHAOLIN DOLEMITE – This piece from 2002 is not my best work, but I’m not sure any of the greats were writing about SHAOLIN DOLEMITE, so I deserve some credit

LI’L PIMP – I’m afraid to read this 2004 Ain’t It Cool piece, but it’s a cartoon movie I watched just for the Rudy Ray Moore cameo

For the Screengrab in 2007 I wrote about seeing Rudy Ray Moore live in Seattle on his 80th birthday

DOLEMITE – I finally wrote up the first film in 2008 as an obituary/tribute. My best piece on Rudy Ray Moore.

THE DOLEMITE EXPLOSION – In 2012 I was finally able to see his last film, which reportedly debuted in 2007

 

 

 

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 at 10:53 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “Dolemite Is My Name”

  1. Looking real forward to this one. Not surprisingly, it played nowhere near me so I’ll have to catch it on video.

  2. HOLY SHIT! I had no idea this was already out. That’s how regularly I check out Netflix. Gives me something to log on for until THE IRISHMAN. I’m gonna have to avoid the review until I could finally sit down with this next Tuesday. Been looking forward to it all year.

    Rudy Ray Moore to me as a hip hop fan and a black man meant a lot. A huge portion of rap would not exist without Dolemite. As a fan of cinema this man to me had the same hunger for independence as George Lucas and like Lucas always kept it 100 with himself till the end. That’s why I greatly respect both. Cinema was better for it. He helped pave a lot of new ground for those that came after.

    People always swear Dolemite was just an extension of Rudy but that was not the case at all. Dolemite was an exemplary example of genuine performance art. The man was an artist first and foremost and if this movie celebrates and demonstrates that for even a quarter it already won.

  3. This is a shameful admission, but while I respect Rudy Ray Moore for his contributions to hip-hop culture and his DIY hustle, I can’t say I have any strong attachment to his work. I just wasn’t there for it. I’m pretty sure I only saw his first movie, which was, you know, it was a movie. Had cameras and lights and everything. So good work on that, fellas. Other than that I don’t feel qualified to speak on the subject. Mostly I know him from his cameos on old rap records, which were generally stellar so I’m not complaining. I like the idea of Dolemite but I’d be a goddamn poseur if I tried to come off like a fan.

    Combine that with my near complete disdain for the biopic as a form (I consider the process of mangling a human life so it fits into a three-act structure to be an grievous abuse of the narrative arts that does a disservice to both life and narrative; seeing the techniques and craft of storytelling employed for such chicanery makes me feel like a sensei whose student has turned to evil) and I had little interest in this.

    Not to mention seeing Eddie Murphy in anything post-1998 makes me uncomfortable, like when you run into an old friend after he got out of rehab or something and he seems happy, I guess, but there’s just something off about him and you don’t know how to act around him anymore.

    BUT THEN!

    I had no idea the script was by the ED WOOD guys, the only motherfuckers on the block who can turn a biopic into an actual MOVIE and not just a dramatized wikipedia page full of montages. They know that a life is not a story, but a life CONTAINS many stories, so the proper use of cinema’s limited narrative real estate is to focus on a particular era or incident from a life that encapsulates said life in microcosm. I’ve been thinking of canceling my Netflix but I might have to check this out first.

  4. I never saw DOLEMITE, but it’s on Tubi right now, so should I watch it before MY NAME IS or the other way or does it even matter at all? I mean, I saw ED WOOD before PLAN 9, but what do you think is more enjoyable: Seeing the original and recognizing the re-enactments or watching the re-enactments and then seeing the real thing?

  5. Hello, everyone. I’ve only posted here two or three times, but I’m a regular visitor. Usually it takes me a long time to see the new releases Vern comments about. But I watched “Dolemite is my Name” yesterday on the big screen, and I enjoyed it so much that I thought I should recommend it immediately to as many people as possible. I’m pretty sure that for many it will be worth watching twice, if not more.

    My view of the film is in line with Vern’s, and I just want to emphasize some of his points:

    1. “… a beautiful, warm, well produced triumph-of-the-underdog epic about Rudy Ray Moore”

    “… funny, warm, inspirational, a celebration of not only Rudy Ray Moore, but of black culture in general, and the DIY spirit, and succeeding without selling out, and people who never give up on creativity, even when the world tells them they’re old, or washed up, or a failure.”

    This is definitely the “spirit” of the film (as it was on “Ed Wood”), and it is one of the main reasons why I enjoyed it so much.

    2. “Rudy’s discovery of and friendship with comedian Lady Reed (…) is very moving.”

    I didn’t know Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Lady Reed) before this film. She’s great in it, and has at least two powerful scenes with Eddie Murphy. One of them is the “discovery scene;” the other is a brief exchange before the big “Dolemite” premiere, where Lady Reed shows her gratitude to Rudy.

    3. “… these filmatists made the genesis of those lines into an emotional scene about Rudy’s self esteem and his childhood, and gave context to the always-conspicuous “insecure” part.”

    My friends and I tend to remember Eddie Murphy as a great comedian, period. This scene in particular reminded me that he is more than that: he is a great actor.

    4. “… it’s a celebration of the funk.”

    The soundtrack had me tapping from start to finish!

    That’s it. Have a good day!

  6. I’d lean “watch DOLEMITE first,” but it would work either way. I know people who have not seen DOLEMITE (yet) who still loved the biopic.

  7. I have never seen DOLEMITE. I don’t generally like biopics. And I loved this movie. It hit so many right and familiar notes for me of the euphoria and heartbreak that goes with pouring your blood into low and microbudget movies. I fucking teared up at the end.

  8. I don’t want to be very hyperbolic about this, but this may be Eddie Murphy’s finest hour. Not just a return to what made him brilliant in the first place, but everything feels tuned just right to his sensibilities and the role as written fits his persona perfectly. Whether at all this bodes well for his return to SNL in December or to stand-up remains to be seen, but my anticipation for those ventures have surely grown since seeing this.

    And for all the cache that he has and that we celebrate him being an action star for, it was really great to see Wesley Snipes in a comedy again. The COMING TO AMERICA sequel didn’t hold much interest for me until finding out he was cast in it, and again I am looking forward to it all the more because of the chemistry he has with Eddie here.

  9. Wow! Folks are being extremely charitable around these parts, because this movie was straight up terrible.

    Let’s get this straight. Moore steals his entire act from local winos and junkies, make a bunch a money off of it, then throws the same winos and junkies out into the street because he wants where they are living to make a movie of the material he stole from them.

    Nice guy…

    Put it this way, about 2/3 of the way through, I realized I was watching a movie where Eddie Murphy is playing straight man to Wesley Snipes.

    Eddie Murphy is playing straight man to Wesley Snipes

    If that’s not an example to how fucking wrongheaded the entire endeavor is, I really don’t know what is…

  10. Republican Cloth Coat

    October 30th, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    I dreamed back in the day that one day they’d make a Rudy Ray Moore bio because his story is so inspiring. I never expected that a movie would actually be made. Rudy Ray Moore’s act was too raw, too difficult, too uncomfortable. But here it is. So what is it.

    This is a story about doing it yourself, about picking up the pieces of the shattered culture around you and making something new something current and totally outrageous. I once read Henry Louis Gate’s academic book about the signifying monkey and the culture and persistence of African-American folklore. Which puts the legacy of griot in it’s American context and an admirable recapitulation of what I knew as schoolyard tales. But Gates never mentions Rudy Ray Moore, which is bullshit because his act was the medium in which 99% of the people who know these stories today discovered this culture. Moore was an important conduit of a the underground to the foreground. We can acknowledge this. It’s real. We don’t have to bury it. We should celebrate it, condemn it when it’s hateful, and incorporate it. Some of Moore’s routines from the records are so hateful, they’re evil. But the main thrust is so exuberantly celebratory of making do with your wits, that the whole thing succeeds.

    That’s what the movie does. Dolemite Is My Name is a loving tribute to a complicated guy who did it himself and succeeded on his own terms. Bless it.

  11. I watched this one this morning and really liked it. It was the right call to watch it before DOLEMITE (which I also watched), because I have to admit it’s at times hard to get through, but a lot easier to appreciate if you learn about the love and elbow grease that went into it.

    One thing I noticed about IS MY NAME is how they don’t portray (white) businessmen as evil. Yeah, Moore and his work gets rejected a lot, but it never seems racially motivated (only by the vulgarity of his act or the quality of his movie) and the people who did hire him, don’t try to exploit him. The shady looking guys from the record label even make sure he knows what the consequences are if he can’t pay them back and they explain it in a “Listen, you are our friend, don’t do this” way and put all cards on the table! And when the sleazy guy who buys the movie at the end asks him if he wants to rip his guts out too, it shows that he at least saw this movie and isn’t just talking.

  12. Fun fact: Insulting people as “insecure” is oddly (or obviously) satisfying.

  13. Nabroleon Dynamite

    November 5th, 2019 at 10:45 am

    @JoJo.

    Sorry you didn’t like it, but remember this…

    Rudy didn’t steal from the winos. The winos were telling old stories and toasts that go all the way back to reconstruction if not slavery itself.

    Also, this is a bio pic and not a comedy, so yes Murphy was more subdued than Snipes, because he was playing a full fledged person and not a comedy relief character (which probably was the best way to deal with Mr. Martin who Wesley was playing).

    This movie was good to me, not great, but now I’m hoping that Spike Lee gets to make his Marion Barry biopic starring Eddie Murphy that I’ve been hearing about for years.

  14. Nabroleon Dynamite

    November 5th, 2019 at 10:45 am

    @JoJo.

    Sorry you didn’t like it, but remember this…

    Rudy didn’t steal from the winos. The winos were telling old stories and toasts that go all the way back to reconstruction if not slavery itself.

    Also, this is a bio pic and not a comedy, so yes Murphy was more subdued than Snipes, because he was playing a full fledged person and not a comedy relief character (which probably was the best way to deal with Mr. Martin who Wesley was playing).

    This movie was good to me, not great, but now I’m hoping that Spike Lee gets to make his Marion Barry biopic starring Eddie Murphy that I’ve been hearing about for years.

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