No, geologists and rockhounds, the title is not misspelled. Dolomite may be a mineral, but Dolemite with two e’s instead of two o’s is the pimp alter ego of Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008) and if you haven’t heard of him, “Dolemite Is My Name” is an obscenely (R-rated) entertaining Netflix biopic starring Eddie Murphy that opens a window into Los Angeles history by exploding plenty of f-bombs and exploring Moore’s Blaxploitation success.
When the movie begins, Moore is middle-aged with the dreaded potbelly to prove it. His dreams of hitting the Hollywood big-time have gone unfulfilled. He’s working as the assistant manager of a record store in the 1970s (Dolphin’s of Hollywood), begging the store DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play his old 45s (That’s a two-song, one for each side black vinyl record for those not familiar with LPs). Originally from Arkansas, he left behind a sharecropper father who told him he’d never amount to anything, yet he’s barely scrapping by.
A homeless guy who regularly hits up Moore for money, inspires Moore to pay for the stories the homeless men tell, recording their colorful language and working it into an act with rhythm and rhyme, which is why Moore is considered a Godfather of Rap.
Trying out his new material at the California Club where he’s been the unappreciated emcee, Moore finds his audience, but that audience is limited. Radios can’t play his routines due to sexual content and liberal usage of four-lettered words. That means, Moore must tour and when he gets enough dough and even a protegée in tow, Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), he presses a record on his own, recording it in an apartment while hosting a performance party. The cover art would need to be covered up in polite company.
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the same team that wrote the Tim Burton-directed 1994 biopic “Ed Wood,” and the 2014 “Big Eyes,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” is about a different type of Hollywood success story. This isn’t like 2017 biopic “The Disaster Artist” which looked at the slightly creepy Tommy Wiseau and his infamously bad movie, “The Room.” Moore was a man who tasted moderate success before he became Dolemite and became an underground legend. What Moore does have in common with Wiseau is they both reached an audience that is often served by small budget equity-waiver stage production: Campy entertainment where the cheap effects add to the charm. The difference seems to be that Wiseau’s bad movie making was not intentional. The movie-within-a-movie makes it clear that Moore intentions were to be humorously preposterous.
Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) directs with love and admiration but movie never becomes muddled because of it. This isn’t Murphy as the brash Axel Foley from the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies or the wise and yet humble “Mr. Church” (2016). Frustrated and sometimes unsure, Murphy’s Moore still has a generous heart when he’s doing well and he always bets on himself.
Another delight of “Dolemite” is the casting. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jerry Jones, a serious playwright concerned with social issues and the lack of them in the film. Craig Robinson (“The Office” and “Sausage Party”), Mike Epps (“The Hangover”), and Titus Burgess (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and the original Sebastian the Crab” in the stage musical version of “The Little Mermaid”) as Moore’s friends. Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock (as Daddy Fatts) are DJs. Wesley Snipes has fun playing D’urville Martin, a real actor whose main claim to fame in 1968 as his role as Diego, the elevator operator on “Rosemary’s Baby.” References to both Polanski and Bill Cosby show how times (and fortunes) have changed. Ruth E. Carter meshes the 1970s fashions against Art Deco decor but hopefully that won’t mean the return of polyester Ike (Eisenhower) jacket suits for men.
Other changes are for the better. The Dunbar Hotel was really used for the filming of the Moore’s first movie, the 1974 “Dolemite” as well as the second, the 1976, “A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich.” Jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Lena Horne did perform there when Central Avenue was part of the jazz scene in the 1930s and 1940s. People like W.E.B. Du Bois, Joe Louis and Ray Charles stayed at the Dunbar (It was listed in the Green Book guide for African American travelers), but as portrayed in the movie, the Dunbar was shuttered and a haven for the homeless by the 1970s even though it was designated an Historic-Cultural Landmark in 1974 and added to the National Register of Historic Place in 1976. The brick facade, grand entry and lobby have been preserved but the hotel is now a residential community development called Dunbar Village.
“Dolemite” is f-bombing historic dynamite. “Dolemite Is My Name” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens at the Playhouse 7 on Oct. 11.