Whatever happened to Eddie Murphy? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.
For those who weren’t moviegoers during the early 80s, it’s hard to convey the seismic impact he had on cinema. I still remember my first sight of him in Walter Hill’s 48 Hours, sitting alone in a prison cell, earphones in and singing raucously along to Roxanne. It was evident at a glance that he was going to be a massive movie star. And through that decade, that’s exactly what he became in films like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop.
But during the 90s, things went awry. A combination of poor film choices, and personal disasters contrived to push him further and further out of the public consciousness. With only occasional flashes of the old brilliance, it seemed to be over for him. So hearing that he is starring in a new movie, released without fanfare direct to Netflix comes as a bit of a surprise – as does the discovery that Dolemite Is My Name is actually pretty decent.
Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a real life comedian/filmmaker, often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Rap’ and, moreover, a man who Murphy has often cited as an influence on his own early career. When we first encounter him, Moore is working by day as the manager of a Los Angeles record store; by night, he’s performing as a music club emcee, but failing to connect with audiences.
When Moore hears a homeless guy reciting bawdy poetry about ‘Dolemite,’ a legendary character amongst older members of the local community, he spots an opportunity to reinvent himself as a standup comedian. Donning an afro wig, and some some flamboyant clothes he hits the stage. In his brash new potty-mouthed persona, he makes an instant connection with the customers, and his fame begins to spread.
When he subsequently offers his act to record labels, they shy away, horrified by the unashamedly sexual nature of the content. Undeterred, he decides to record some albums himself with the aid of friends and relatives; and pretty soon, he finds himself on the billboard charts, selling records by the ton.
And then, one evening, a disappointing trip to the cinema gives him another idea. Why not write and produce a Dolemite movie? No film company wants to take it on, so once again, he has to find unconventional ways to make it happen…
It’s lovely to see some of Murphy’s old familiar spark being reignited here. Moore’s story is that of the classic underdog, the kind of guy who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and whom audiences just can’t help rooting for. I’ve never caught up with the original Dolemite, but it’s clear from the scenes lovingly recreated here (and reprised in their original form in a post credits sequence) that this Blaxploitation classic belongs in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. This sparky film, directed by Craig Brewer, tells the story with aplomb and the presence of Wesley Snipes as louche actor D’ouville Martin and (an uncredited) Bob Odenkirk as a predatory movie executive add to its appeal.
Anyone interested in seeing this can catch it any time they like on Netflix. As for Murphy, he has a Coming to America sequel in the works. It remains to be seen if that endeavour will be afforded the luxury of a theatrical release.