The question of whether Eddie Murphy has got his mojo back – or if it had ever gone away – is probably beside the point, considering his richly enjoyable starring role in this true showbiz story about the eternal excitement of putting on the show right here.
Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, the singer, nightclub comic and proto-rapper who in 1975 produced and starred in the cult blaxploitation comedy Dolemite, based on the outrageously obscene character he’d created for his standup act and bestselling LPs. The nearest Brit equivalent was probably Derek and Clive. With never-say-die attitude, Moore battles through his ailing career in its early days: the sometime singer and dancer has an epiphany on seeing a garrulous homeless guy reciting rhyming tales of a legendary character called Dolemite.
Like a true artist and born entrepreneur, Moore tape records the man’s shtick, studies it, adapts it for his own club turn, and soon he’s a biggish success as a comedian, shrewdly getting a self-distributed release on vinyl. But he yearns for the movie big time, and hires a producer, Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), an obstreperous, highly strung director D’Urville Smith (a hilarious role for Wesley Snipes), and a leading lady (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), moreover roping in UCLA film school students to do the hard stuff.
There’s a great scene in which Ray and his friends go to see Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the remake of The Front Page, frown at how bafflingly unfunny they find this white-people’s comedy, and Ray turns around and gazes at the beam of light coming from the projector booth, as if mesmerised by this mysterious origin of moviedom: the fountain of cinema success. How can he tap this enigmatic flow of light?
Murphy gives such a likable, big-hearted performance and the movie is comparable perhaps to Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! (2003), his tribute to his father Melvin’s early-70s blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
For white suburban Brits like me in the 70s, the nearest we got to finding out about these films at the time was the raunchy sketches in Kentucky Fried Movie. It’s a heartfelt, funny, satisfying film.