“Dolemite Is My Name,” starring Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, an over-the-hill comedian who became an unlikely film star in the early 1970s, is many things: A comeback story whose lead actor is indeed making a comeback, a disco-dandy period-piece and an ebullient comedy with an irresistibly inspirational message.
The film, now on Netflix, is also a sincere tribute from one African-American success story to another. Moore, who died in 2008, was a major influence on Murphy as a young comedian growing up on Long Island, and Murphy clearly feels a deep kinship with the character. In his first major film role in years, Murphy delivers a terrific performance: funny, sharp, poignant and full of love.
Dolemite is a folkloric figure, a kind of X-rated Stagger Lee whose exploits are recounted in rhyme. Moore is working in a Los Angeles record store when he hears a homeless man reeling off these prurient poems, and a light bulb goes off. Assembling a fantastic barf-green pimp-outfit (kudos to Ruth E. Carter for the eye-watering wardrobes), Moore becomes Dolemite on stage, and he’s a hit. Homemade records are pressed and the Chitlin’ Circuit beckons, but Moore isn’t satisfied with being an underground Redd Foxx: He wants to make a movie.
What follows is a comedy of errors with echoes of “The Disaster Artist” and “Ed Wood” (whose screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, rework their loopy-but-lovely magic here) as Moore plows forward on a low-budget film despite a complete lack of experience or skill. The result is “Dolemite,” a 1975 action-comedy-chop-socky-you-name-it that became a grassroots smash and launched a franchise. It also helped popularize Moore as a rap godfather who would later appear on tracks by Big Daddy Kane, Snoop Dogg (who takes a small role here) and 2 Live Crew.
“Dolemite Is My Name,” directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), makes the most of everything it’s got. Small parts are played by major talent — Keegan Michael-Key is an uptight screenwriter, while Craig Robinson and Mike Epps are among Moore’s faithful pals — and nearly every frame is packed with period details. Two standout performances come from Wesley Snipes as the tragicomic director D’Urville Martin and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a woman of hard luck and large size who overcomes her insecurities to step into the spotlight.
“Dolemite Is My Name” should make this a banner year for Netflix, which also produced Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-caliber saga “The Irishman.” As for Murphy, a best actor nod doesn’t seem out of the question. If the Academy invents an award for Best Feel-Good Motion Picture, though, “Dolemite Is My Name” will be the movie to beat.