Dolemite Is My Name is a tribute to the comedy, the music and the movies of the late Rudy Ray Moore. Directed by Craig Brewer, it's a movie for fans of Dolemite, made by fans of Dolemite. Julian Newby reports.
Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore with Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, Craig Robinson as Ben, Mike Epps as Jimmy and
Tituss Burgess as Toney FACING a failing showbusiness career, comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) decides to take on a new stage name and persona: a pimp named Dolemite. Moore convinces screenwriter Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to write the character into a film featuring crazy kung-fu scenes, car chases and lots of women, including Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a former backing singer who becomes Moore’s comedy partner.
Despite clashes with his director D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), and more than a few problems at the makeshift studio they establish at L.A.’s Hotel Dunbar — Moore’s home for some years and the heart of Central Avenue’s African-American music scene — the resulting film, 1975’s Dolemite, is a box office hit, with The New York Times labelling it “The Citizen Kane of kung-fu pimpin’ movies”.
Jump to 2019 and the Netflix movie Dolemite Is My Name tells the story of the making of that movie: Rudy Ray Moore took on a new persona, the film did get made — self-financed by Moore for less than $100,000 — it was released in 1975 and it became a cult hit.
Which is why some big names lined-up to take part in this 2019 homage to the original. Many comics, actors and rappers have cited Moore as a pioneer and an influence on their work, and Dolemite Is My Name is a tribute to this unique talent, a man who created his own legend.
Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore at the Californian Club
“I love the Dolemite pictures. Back when I used to tour, we used to play his records on the tour bus” - Eddie Murphy
Another legend, Eddie Murphy, knew Moore and last spoke to him about
a possible movie back in 2004, four years before he passed away. “I love the Dolemite pictures. Back when I used to tour, we used to play his records on the tour bus,” Murphy says. These included Eat Out More Often, I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing, and The Streaker, which all featured cover art of Moore accompanied by various naked women. “The black comics, we’d sit around listening to them, or watch his movies, and then we’d debate whether or not Rudy was taking himself seriously. For years, debates like that went on: me and Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Paul Mooney, and Chris Rock.”
“When I was making movies with guerilla filmmaking — showing-up at a location with no permit — Rudy Ray Moore was kind of our hero,” director Craig Brewer says. “The more you start researching Rudy Ray Moore, you realize that he was a cheerleader for this band of misfits, that came together to make what he believed was cinema. We can laugh at Dolemite. We can see that the hits don’t necessarily connect in his karate. We can see that he may not be the best actor that there is. But damn it, that man believes in every frame.”
The movies were seriously low-budget; Dolemite was made with a crew of just eight, but for Murphy this simply added to the charm: “You see the cameraman come in a shot, and you see the microphones slip into the shots. Or you see a punch being thrown really far. There might be this one dude in the scene, then a cut, and when it cuts back, they have somebody else playing the dude, but with a wig on. It’s insanity with the continuity.”
“If we're going to recreate the world where Rudy worked, it only makes sense to do it where he did it” - David Lyons
Moore’s stage act would begin with the words: “Dolemite is my name and f*ckin’ up motherf*ckers is my game.” His style of delivery led to the nickname The Godfather of Rap. “Rudy would do the rhyming toasts and then he would instruct the club drummer, ‘Give me a nice beat against that,’” the movie’s co-writer Scott Alexander says.
“Once people found out that we were making a Dolemite movie with Eddie, there was a stampede,” Alexander's co-writer Larry Karaszewski adds. “This was one of those cases where people would just say: ‘Whatever part, I don’t care.’”
“Even if I had been carrying lights or helping the gaffers, I definitely wanted to be a part of the movie,” says rapper/actor/entrepreneur Snoop Dogg, who actually went a little further than that, taking the role of DJ Roj in the film. “Rudy Ray Moore was one of the first to put rap and rhyme to rhythm. A lot of great rappers perfected their skills and their styles and their look based off of watching Rudy.”
To be true to the story, Dolemite Is My Name used almost 100 locations over a 44-day shoot. Every frame of the film was shot in Los Angeles and surrounding suburbs — Thousand Oaks, Long Beach, San Pedro, Norwalk, Griffith Park, Lincoln Heights, Silverlake — and many more Southern California backdrops play cameo roles in the film.
The man whose job it was to seek out these genuine locations, location manager David Lyons, was another who was drawn to the movie because of his passion for the work of Rudy Ray Moore.
“When I was 15, my best friend and I would ride our bikes to the local video store,” Lyons says. “There was a section at the store called Black Action. It was the only section that we cared about. It's where we discovered Shaft, Super Fly, Coffy, Black Belt Jones — and the best one of them all, Dolemite. We rented it so much that I eventually convinced the store to sell me their copy. I still have it.”
Lyons’ time spent as a kid growing up in L.A. served him well on the project. “When I first moved to Los Angeles I was excited about everything there was to do, but I couldn't afford to do any of it. So I entertained myself by finding locations from my favorite movies: Double Indemnity, Fletch, Dolemite, you know... the classics. So when I came aboard the movie, I already knew where several of the locations were.”
But when he first got the call, Lyons thought that someone was playing a joke on him: “Who the hell would make a movie about Dolemite? After I spoke with the producer, and talked about the movie and Rudy Ray Moore, I think he thought someone was screwing with him, because, likewise: ‘Who the hell knows that much about Dolemite?’”
Thanks to his boyhood passion, Lyons knew where much of the original film had been shot. “But after I read the script, I realized that there was much more that I needed to find. I started doing more research on Rudy Ray Moore, and found the locations of [record store] Dolphin's of Hollywood, where he worked, and the Dunbar, where he lived,” he says. “With those two pieces in place, I was able to get a sense of his neighborhood, where he would go, and what he would do.”
The building used for the exterior of the Dunbar was Royal Lake Apartments, located at 11th and Lake in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles. “The building is about the same size as the Dunbar, and has similar architectural features. Most importantly, it was located in an area where we could control the streets,” Lyons says. “The actual Dunbar is on Central Avenue, south of Downtown. We scouted the Dunbar, but it didn't work for a myriad of reasons. In addition to it being located on a street that was way too busy to shut down, they were constructing a restaurant in the front of the building. They were on a deadline to open, and didn't need a film crew slowing them down. Not to mention that you only had a narrow frame that you could turn into 1974, while the Royal Lake Apartments provided us with the option to film 360 degrees.”
The production team briefly considered emptying the original Dunbar building for the shoot: “We toyed with the idea of buying out all of the residents for a month, but that just wasn't practical,” Lyons says. “It was decided to film the exterior at the Royal Lake, and to build the interior on stage. That also gave our brilliant production designer, Clay A. Griffith, a chance to create exactly what he wanted, instead of trying to turn a remodeled lobby into a 1970s junkie's flop joint.”
The 1970s look was crucial to the film. “The first point of reference was the original movies,” Lyons says. “Not only Dolemite, and The Human Tornado, but also Petey Wheatstraw, The Disco Godfather, and The Monkey Hustle — all Rudy Ray Moore films. He made all of these movies out of the Dunbar in the span of about four years. Watching those movies shows you his world. From there, we had the look book, put together by Clay. This gave the overall tone that we were going for, and was a creative jumping-off point for everyone.”
And for Lyons, staying in and around Los Angeles was crucial. ”With the entirety of the original movie being shot in Los Angeles, and with the ability to be able to replicate the looks of the scripted non-Los Angeles locations, there was no reason to go elsewhere,” he says. “It was important to me to film in the same places that Rudy shot the original movie. Rudy and his friends were guerrilla filmmakers, and I certainly have experience in that world. If we're going to recreate the world where Rudy worked, it only makes sense to do it where he did it.”
Alongside Dolphin's of Hollywood and the Dunbar, the Californian Club, where the Dolemite character first came alive, was an important location in the story of Rudy Ray Moore.
But Bahia wasn't sufficiently intimate. “We wanted the feel of a small place, but it had to be big enough to host a film crew,” Lyons says. “After about a month of searching, we were running out of ideas. Clay suggested that we look at El Cid, a flamenco-themed nightclub on Sunset in Silverlake that stands on the site of where D. W.. Griffith filmed Birth of a Nation. It's modeled after a Spanish tavern: big red leather booths, chandeliers that looked old in the Sixties, and a fantastic stage. It also had great sight lines to the bar, where the owner could give Rudy dirty looks. It was an instant sell.”
Recreating Dolphin's of Hollywood was “a labor of love” for Lyons. “As a record collector, and as a music guy, this location was precious to me. As a kid, the local record store was more than a place to go buy your favorite single. It was a place to hang out and hear about new music from people that knew a hell of a lot more about music than you did. Later, in college, I became the guy that worked at a record store. It had to be right. Luckily, because of my vinyl habit, I already knew the perfect spot: Poo-Bah Records in Pasadena. In fact, I purchased a Rudy Ray Moore album there a few years ago.”
Poo-Bah “was the right size, had a great layout, and looks great on film. And the owner and his employees are all wonderful,” Lyons says. “The kind of people that you would expect to find in your neighborhood record shop. The art department had a lot of work to do. They walled-up the second story balcony, added a DJ booth for Snoop Dogg, removed all of the vintage posters, and resurfaced the record bins. When I walked into the dressed set, I actually teared-up. Clay told me he did, as well.”