Hollywood biopics generally focus on the biggest and most renowned figures in the realms of entertainment. Everyone knows and loves Ray Charles, Elton John, and Tina Turner, so it only makes sense to tell their personal stories in a biography-style movie. But what of the artists who aren’t household names but made an impact in one area of art, entertainment, or pop culture?
For those figures you turn to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the very clever screenwriters who brought us several great films about pop culture icons such as Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman, and Margaret Keane. These writers are particularly good at finding the humanity in some of the most unexpected people, which is why they’re the perfect guys to tell the simple but powerful story of Mr. Rudy Ray Moore.
Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) with a good deal of affection for the subject matter, Dolemite Is My Name details Moore’s gradual rise to stardom — the man bounced from comedian to musician without ever finding his true calling. Until, that is, he assumes the stage persona of “Dolemite,” a rhyming pimp character who turns out to be Moore’s biggest success. And since the stage shows are such a hit, Rudy figures it only makes sense to turn Dolemite into a movie. And that’s really when Dolemite Is My Name starts to shine.
I’ll cut right to it: Eddie Murphy’s lead performance as the ambitious, tenacious, and highly profane Rudy Ray Moore is the film’s biggest asset, but the veteran comedian — here delivering some of his best dramatic work, ever — is capably flanked by performers like Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Wesley Snipes, Tituss Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. This ensemble plays a crew of (mostly) inexperienced indie filmmakers, and while this is frequently Eddie Murphy’s movie, this stellar cast keeps Dolemite Is My Name cooking in every single scene. Plus the clothes and the music and the mid-’70s production design are all fantastic.
Most “success story” biopics are laden with predictable cliches, characters, and moments, but good filmmakers manage to avoid or subvert our expectations in this department. Dolemite Is My Name works as a welcome slice of cinematic history, but it’s also a sweet, sincere, and sometimes quite touching story about reaching for a dream that seems impossible. In other words, Dolemite Is My Name is not only a fascinating, funny biopic about a compelling guy; it’s also an absolute love letter to anyone who has gathered a few friends together to make a movie — even if they have no real idea how to pull it off.
(Screened at Fantastic Fest; in theaters Oct. 4, Netflix Oct. 25.)