“Dolemite Is My Name,” which starts streaming on Netflix Oct. 25, is one of those movies about the making of a movie where the movie you’re watching is better than the movie that got made. Like “Ed Wood” and “The Disaster Artist,” it gets its juice from its central figure, a driven, even delusional creative force who doesn’t know good from bad and doesn’t care. What makes this one special isn’t just Eddie Murphy in the best role he’s had in decades, as ’70s comedian Rudy Ray Moore. It’s the furious determination with which Moore aches to be a star — to be seen — and the way he became a new thing in black pop culture by reaching back to the oldest traditions of all.
Rudy’s a middle-aged has-been when the film opens, stocking albums in an LA record shop where even the in-store DJ (a deadpan Snoop Dogg) won’t play his hackneyed R&B sides. As a comedian/emcee at a local nightclub, he’s even more pathetic. “How’d my life get so damn small?” he asks, surveying a career that was supposed to happen and didn’t.
Inspiration strikes in the form of a neighborhood wino (Ron Cephas Jones) who styles himself as “a repository of Afro-American folklore,” telling tall tales in rhyming couplets that go all the way back to the Mother Country. In short order, Rudy has reinvented himself as Dolemite, a badass cartoon pimp with outrageously bawdy rhymes about sex, yo’ mama, and signifying tricksters. He’s a hit on the club circuit, but he wants more. Much more.
Directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow,” TV’s “Empire”), “Dolemite Is My Name” is a straightforward, extremely entertaining account of how Moore bootstrapped his way onto the recorded-comedy charts and then into the movie business with “Dolemite” (1975), an endearingly terrible blaxploitation/kung fu action film that became both a camp joke and a word-of-mouth hit. A motormouthed hustler, Rudy just won’t take no for an answer, and when all other avenues are closed, he’ll do it himself: put out his own records and sell them out of his car trunk, take over a derelict hotel for a film set, badger the established actor D’Urville Martin to direct.
Martin is played by Wesley Snipes in a comically prissy performance that’s over the top but also good fun in this context, and the script surrounds Rudy with an engaging coterie of friends, accomplices, and well-wishers — “Dolemite Is My Name” is that rare movie without a villain (aside from an entertainment industry that’s deaf to the charms of Rudy Ray Moore.)
Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, and Tituss Burgess (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) are the central crew, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph is wonderful as a beaten-down housewife who becomes Moore’s onstage partner, Lady Reed. This is also the rare movie without a love interest, but the scene in which Rudy meets Lady Reed drowning her sorrows at a bar and proceeds to build her back up again is a sweetly touching moment.
There’s more — goodness, is there more: Keegan-Michael Key, almost stealing the show as the stiff, socially conscious playwright who becomes Rudy’s screenwriter; Kodi-Smit McPhee, as the head of a film crew of scrawny white boys from the University of Southern California; Luenell (she played the all-night grocery clerk in “A Star Is Born,” remember?), as Moore’s aunt and financial backer.
It’s an Eddie Murphy movie when all is said and done, though, and it’s been far too long since we’ve had one worthy of his talent. “Dolemite Is My Name” is not a movie that reinvents the wheel: Its treatment of women is realistically mid-’70s, and it’s definitely overlong — by the time Rudy is forced to “four-wall” his own film when no one else will distribute it, you may be checking your watch. But Murphy grounds the film, in part because the actor has the gift of motormouth hustle himself, but also because he gets the anger at the core of Rudy Ray Moore — the rage to be noticed that propelled Moore away from Arkansas, an abusive stepfather, and the life of a black sharecropper.
The irony is that he finally became a star by repurposing old rhymes and brags passed along by generations of slaves and their descendants (and in so doing became an acknowledged godfather of hip-hop). “Dolemite Is My Name” is a story as old as America. As an African-American story, though, it’s even older than that.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
Directed by Craig Brewer. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Starring Eddie Murphy, Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps. On Netflix. 118 minutes. R (pervasive language, crude sexual content, graphic nudity)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.