Eddie Murphy has been missing from the big screen in recent years. He’s appeared only sporadically in rinky-dink comedies such as A Thousand Words or inspirational dramas such as Mr. Church, and the spark of joy that powered his comic persona for decades has seemed lost for quite a while. His new film, Dolemite Is My Name, is a perfectly charming biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, the legendary entertainer and “godfather of rap.” But it’s most exciting to watch as a reminder of just how good Murphy can be when he’s committed to his material. In playing this gregarious, optimistic go-getter, Murphy seems revitalized, and he gives this pleasant recounting of life on the Hollywood margins a jolt of energy anytime the camera is pointed his way.
Murphy’s unique spirit as a movie star owes some debt to Moore, who was best known for playing the swaggering character Dolemite in his stand-up and acting career. And Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, is infused with Murphy’s obvious love for Moore, both as a trailblazer and as a sheer force of personality. The film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo behind real-life stories such as American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and Big Eyes) and is reminiscent of their Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood—another celebration of a figure who was once dismissed as a B-movie hack. But unlike Ed Wood, Dolemite Is My Name is about an entertainer who never worried much about so-called legitimacy, bypassing the studio system and finding other ways into an industry that ignored him.
The first half of the film follows Moore in his career as a musician and stand-up comedian, crafting his Dolemite persona (essentially, a nattily dressed gangster who’s fond of rhyming insults) and building up a local following by selling records out of the trunk of his car. Murphy keeps Moore’s spirits high, even as the character flounders, laying the emotional groundwork for a man who chased an audience even when nothing seemed to be on the horizon. Moore’s belief in himself is crystallized when he goes to see the 1974 film The Front Page (starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon); while his friends look on in disbelief at a comedy they find utterly mirthless, Moore can’t stop gazing at the projection light, trying to imagine a way to get himself onto the big screen.
He finds a way with Dolemite, a rickety, independently financed quasi-comedy directed by the preening D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) and written by the lofty playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key). The real 1975 film, which brought Moore to a national audience, arrived a few years into the blaxploitation movement started by movies such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft. Dolemite was made on an even smaller scale than those projects and became a word-of-mouth sensation, mixing kung-fu action, absurd gunplay, and over-the-top sex scenes into one crowd-pleasing package with an admirably cheap sense of cheerfulness.
It’s the kind of so-bad-it’s-good cult object that occasionally used to succeed outside the studio system, and the second half of Brewer’s film depicts its wild production as a goofy shambles. Like The Disaster Artist, this sequence is an anarchic ode to amateur moviemaking, surfacing every wild tale about Moore’s skill at cutting corners and winning people over to a seemingly lost cause. Many movie fans won’t know about this story, and Murphy’s passion helps sell the vitality of what Moore and his team created, even if the real-life product was ultimately a little lacking in quality.
Dolemite Is My Name was made by Netflix and will launch on the streaming service later this month. But the film is worth seeing during its limited theatrical run. It’s the kind of comedy that plays well with a big, lively audience, packed as it is with jokes and featuring a sterling ensemble that also includes appearances from Mike Epps, Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, and Tituss Burgess. While Steve Martin’s Bowfinger (1999) remains the best movie Murphy has ever made about indie filmmaking in Hollywood, Dolemite Is My Name is only slightly less ridiculous and goes down just as smoothly. It’s a delightful shot of enthusiasm that, audiences can hope, will open a new chapter in Murphy’s career.