We haven’t seen much of Eddie Murphy this decade — 2006’s Dreamgirls was supposed to be his comeback, to no avail — but it only takes a drop of his energy to remember what made him a star.
Netflix’s new biopic Dolemite Is My Name offers Murphy room to flex his dramatic chops as actor Rudy Ray Moore, who contends with the nature of fame and opportunity. When Moore, by way of Murphy, takes on the stage persona of Dolemite, the film truly begins to buzz. Moore’s material — rhyming tales of sexual exploits and physical prowess — doesn’t quite have the same kick in 2019 as it did in the ’70s, but that hardly matters when Murphy’s energy is so electric.
Directed by Craig Brewer and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (also responsible for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and The People vs. OJ), the “make or break” of Dolemite Is My Name is its star. Murphy passes that particular test with flying colors, his voice, features, and physical performance just as elastic as ever. That leaves the other elements of the film free to be a little clunkier, which, for the most part, they are.
When we first meet Moore, he’s working as the assistant manager in a record store, begging the DJ (Snoop Dogg, who actually worked with Moore and cites him as a major influence) to play the records he’d cut in an attempt to break into the music industry and chasing out a local panhandler (Ron Cephas Jones). Still determined to become a star, he sees his next shot manifest when the record-store crowd actually pays attention to the panhandler’s stories. Audiences are similarly rapt when Moore adapts those stories for his own use, putting on a wig and a lime green suit to turn himself into “Dolemite.” Success in comedy, however, isn’t enough for Moore. If he really wants to expand his audience, he’s going to have to get into movies.
The details of Moore’s story are compelling — he began by self-distributing his first comedy record because no one thought it was marketable, and four-walled the initial release of the film Dolemite because studios thought the same thing — but the film paints broader strokes. (Judging from the generally saccharine tone of most biopics, maybe it’s inevitable.) Dolemite Is My Name wears its heart firmly on its sleeve as the tale of an underdog making his own success, complete with punchy montages and scenes in which people confess to Moore just how much his work has meant to them.
The exception to the rule is Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, who comes closest to stealing the show from Murphy and is the only (black) character who views Dolemite with disdain rather than adoration. Snooty as they come, Martin is just as cartoonish in real life as Moore is on stage, every gesture a flourish and every comment a barb. He’s delightfully pretentious even when draped in yards of fake intestines.
The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Tituss Burgess, is wonderful — particularly Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Moore’s eventual platonic partner, Lady Reed — but there’s no question about the fact that this is Murphy’s show. The scenes when Murphy plays Moore playing Dolemite are giddy; it’s just more immediate fun to watch him perform than it is to watch him dig into territory too much deeper than that.
The investment in recreating old Dolemite scenes feels like a missed opportunity during the occasional Dolemite-less scene, which, while less flashy, end up being more emotionally affecting. Murphy is charismatic enough without putting on a mask (or much of one, given that Moore is also a part to play), and the moments in which Moore is just Moore, insecurities and all, are especially fascinating given Murphy’s own tumultuous relationship with show business.
Dolemite Is My Name is ultimately a little flimsy — perhaps as is appropriate given the nature of Dolemite itself — but it’s a star turn for Murphy. His compassionate choices make up for the film’s flaws, or at least make them less noticeable while you’re watching it. The hope is Murphy back for good; he certainly hasn’t missed a beat.
Dolemite Is My Name is streaming on Netflix now.