The four opening twangs of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ are unmistakable – but they’re only paving the way for the performance of a lesser known yet still deserving star in Dolemite is My Name. The movie about the man in the title, but also about the art of making movies itself, opens with that anthemic melody, but so quickly somersaults off it. This is film about starting from the bottom and hopping over every reference, obstacle, idea and mistake to reach the top.
Director Craig Brewer’s comedy drama shines bright because of, above all else, its incandescent leading man. Eddie Murphy is well and truly back, in a role that lets him fashion dynamite out of thin air, giving an everyman the tools to conquer the world. His Rudy Ray Moore, the man behind the Dolemite character, is a performer through and through (stand-up, dancing, telling fortunes). Whatever it takes, he’ll do it.
Add to the high-stakes performance an infectious funky soundtrack and ’70s threads to die for, and you’ve got a movie that oozes style from every seam. It offers an easy and entertaining education, on a major figure who helped shape the film industry during the peak of blaxploitation filmmaking.
But this last task does also dilute Dolemite – a movie about making movies. However electric those internal products were, they can often suffer in the reproduction. It’s a delight for hands-on cinema nuts curious about the process, but scenes on-set somewhat lose the fire of Murphy’s charisma when retelling Moore’s practical climb to success.
It comes in waves, though, and a tremendous supporting cast balances the firecracker hero with humour and compassion. Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson and Wesley Snipes beam with confidence, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph injects the seductive energy that so much of Moore’s work prided itself on.
If Dolemite Is My Name fails to achieve stratospheric originality, it’s because of its loyalty to the framework of the biopic – accessible and somewhat predictable (if he didn’t ultimately win, would anyone be watching?) But it’s rarely because of any one participant’s failure to amp up the effort to 11. Brewer brings his material to life with bold enthusiasm, and finds a joyous team to help him honour one of the greats.
Not so dissimilar to The Disaster Artist, albeit with objectively more urgent and technically accomplished source material to nod to, Dolemite Is My Name lifts the curtain on one of Hollywood’s lesser-known icons. It also has a motherfuckin’ good time while doing so.