Among the other things Eddie Murphy’s rapturously received new comedy has going for it, “Dolemite Is My Name” might be the movie musical of the year, in spirit, if not wholly in form. At least, there are a few sequences where its real-life protagonist, comedian/musician/actor Rudy Ray Moore, breaks into a kind of proto-hip-hop performance mode. The rest of the movie has nearly wall-to-wall music, whether it’s the ‘70s hits of Marvin Gaye and Sly & the Family Stone or an original score that harks back to the blaxploitation era’s funk-filled glory days.
Marrying music and movies comes naturally to director Craig Brewer, who offered a more contemporary take on hip-hop with “Hustle & Flow,” and his house composer, fellow Memphis native Scott Bomar, a founder of the neo-soul group the Bo-Keys. Plus, you’d be hard-pressed to find screenwriter-producers who know their ‘70s music better than Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the instigators of “Dolemite Is My Name.” Variety spoke with these four music buffs (in three separate conversations, blended here) about how the Netflix film celebrates Moore’s musical legacy … as well as how its Stax-influenced music tips its hat to John Williams as well as Isaac Hayes, and what James Ingram’s got to do with it.
How seminal an influence on hip-hop is Rudy Ray Moore?
Scott Alexander: He’s pretty seminal, at least according to the guys who started it. Snoop and Eazy-E always tipped their hat to Rudy, as the guy who paved the road for them.
Larry Karaszewski: What I hear from people a lot of times is that (Moore’s movies) “Dolemite” and “Disco Godfather” are standard tour bus entertainment — that when you’re traveling on the bus for 12 hours between cities, they put on “Human Tornado” and have it run a bunch of times. … Once it got out that we were making a Rudy Ray Moore movie with Eddie Murphy, everybody really wanted to be in it. And Snoop gives props to Rudy as being a gigantic influence; if you Google, there’s video of Snoop and Rudy together. He wanted to be a part of it, and it seemed a perfect way to open the movie, with a guy who is a rapper who claims to be influenced by Rudy, who is actually a pretty good actor as well.
Is what Moore was doing in the mid-‘70s with his Dolemite persona something we can really call a prototype for rap?
Karaszewski: Definitely, in that he was rhyming to a beat. I know it doesn’t sound that crazy when you say it that way, but Rudy’s records were sort of spoken-word that just added a little tiny bit of funk behind it. And just that little bit, I think, pushes it into the beginning of hip-hop. I think also the X-rated nature of it, and the gigantic, boastful braggart that he created on top of that, definitely went well with particularly the beginning of gangsta rap, because that was all about creating these characters that were bigger than life but of the streets, and as bad as they want to be.
Craig Brewer: I would say that it goes even deeper than just the fact that he’s rapping in rhyme and being a bad-ass. I think also why he’s the godfather of rap is because of how he kept going. Look, I know so many rap artists that they’ve got a day job. They’re making deliveries or they’re working as IT tech people, but the passion is in making music, and so they’re making recordings in their living rooms and homemade studios, printing up their own CDs and going to swap meets and selling out of their trunk. That to me is really the same spirit that I see in the movie with Rudy Ray Moore, where I see a direct connection to a lot of people in the rap game that I know. There’s so many more people that are moving their units themselves and hyping themselves, as opposed to the famous people that we know that have a whole label behind them or something like that. To me, that’s really the connection: It’s even more about the hustle than it is really the — God help me! — flow. [Laughs.] That’s the first time I’ve said that, and I’m already regretting it.
Rudy’s first moment of triumph is when he first tries out the Dolemite character, doing “Signifying Monkey” in a club. It’s kind of this movie’s “Shallow”… its star-is-born moment.
Brewer: I love that. I don’t think anyone’s ever said that, but I now believe it. [Laughs.] Having lived with “Hustle & Flow” over the years, I’ve seen what people responded to. I remember Larry and Scott and me talking about the moment that Rudy gets up on stage and performs for the first time. I remember saying this has to be a “Whoop That Trick” moment. If you’ve seen “Hustle & Flow,” there’s this moment where they rap for the first time, and it’s a little raw, but it’s exciting — they’re moving around and the beat is hitting and you’re like, “Oh, am I in for this now? I didn’t know it was going to be this cool. They’ve been talking about rapping for a long time, but now they’re doing it.” So that moment when he gets up on stage for the first time and the drummer comes in behind him and starts doing that beat, and then the band starts coming in and playing with them, that’s an important music moment, because the music is helping him with his delivery. Every time I watch it, I get excited.
Alexander: In that scene, Eddie starts doing the routine, then there’s a beat from the percussionist, and then Craig Robinson just sort of strolls in (on piano). It turns out Craig Robinson is actually a pianist and a singer, so he could sit down behind Eddie and start banging out some chords — and so on screen you see it evolving organically right in front of you, which is really cool.
Karaszewski: When we were writing the script, and you’re just typing that Rudy will do (his breakout number) “The Signifying Monkey,” there was worry in the room, like: Someone getting up and doing “The Signifying Monkey” in 2019 — is that still going to be funny? Eddie can sell it. Once you saw that that first take where Eddie got on stage and did it, all our fears went away.
The idea of Rudy rhyming comedically over music — were there other guys who already did that, or was it a weird stroke of genius?
Karaszewski: Well, it always existed. People talk about, “Oh, he took his act from the hobos.” But those hobos did not come up with the act. Those hobos were telling the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. “The Signifying Monkey” is a rather old toast. What Rudy did was simply crank it up an extra notch, make it a little bit more professional, and add his own personality to it. I’m equating it almost to the way a Pete Seeger would go listen to a hobo and sing their folk songs and then figure out how to make them into an album that he could play at Carnegie Hall. The way Muhammad Ali would rhyme and brag, a couple years before Rudy started doing this, that definitely comes from the same tradition.
Alexander: Yeah, but I think we can give Rudy credit as the first guy to put it on vinyl — and to say, “Okay, I’m going to go charge money for this. For this oral tradition, I need four dollars!”
Are there any of Rudy’s records you’d consider most essential?
Karaszewski: I don’t know if you can name them in Variety. Although we’re very proud that the Variety review of the movie (by Owen Gleiberman) began with “’Dolemite is My Name’ is a total motherf—in’ blast.”
Alexander: “This Pussy Belongs to Me”! [That was the title of Moore’s second album as the Dolemite character.] The first two albums have most of the greatest hits. If you want to keep things clean for your publication, “Eat Out More Often” [the first of them] is the album you see the guys hand-making in the film.
Karaszewski: I think whatever record you heard the most of, the humor of Rudy Ray Moore wears you down a bit, so actually it’s like on the eighth listen that you’re actually laughing harder than on the first. Because the first listen, you’re like, “what is this?” And then at a certain point you’re laughing your head off from repetition.
Larry and Scott, this follows somewhat in the tradition of “Ed Wood” for you, where you have these sad-sack characters who are down on their luck before it then turns into this “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” enthusiastic backstage story. In this case, unlike “Ed Wood,” you get to have high-energy musical numbers as well as film-within-a-film sequences to propel that.
Alexander: There’s a definite meta thing going on, in that Rudy was this compulsive ex-vaudevillian. If you look at Rudy’s movies, it’s like he’s trying to put on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s like the movies will just sort of stop for a juggler and then a shake dancer and then another stand-up comedian, and then a lady will come out and belt a ballad — it’s just this cornucopia of nightclub entertainment. So our movie is sort of having fun with the way Rudy liked to make movies: “And now, all right, here’s a funny scene, and now here’s a touching scene, and now here’s some dancing, and now someone’s going to sing a number. And we’ve got a ventriloquist coming out later!”
Karaszewski: It gets very meta. There are times, I believe, in “Dolemite” where he’s playing Dolemite, but as he leaves the stage, Lady Reed says, “Give it up for Rudy Ray Moore!” It’s a fine line between Rudy and Dolemite. … And every one of Rudy’s movies stops cold for 15 minutes and you go into a nightclub and there’s this nightclub performance.
Alexander: I always say it’s as if the movie’s giving Rudy time to go backstage and change his clothes and take a shower, so someone else has to come out in front of the curtain to entertain for a while.
Karaszewski: You made the comment that it’s like, “Everyone put on a show!” In Rudy’s case, the movies really feel that way. That’s why our movie has that sweet quality to it, because he really seemed to be someone who believed in his friends. He believed in himself, and he believed that almost everybody is a star. And so the movies do just stop for other people to perform, whether it’s Revelation Funk…
Alexander: Yeah, Revelation Funk, with James Ingram. There he is!
Wait, James Ingram is in one of the Dolemite movies?
Alexander: Yeah, James Ingram is in the band Revelation Funk, which is sort of the house band in “Dolemite.” They got their big break from Rudy! I mean, “big break” meaning they probably didn’t get paid.
Karaszewski: I mentioned the idea that everybody’s a star. We open the movie with the Sly and the Family Stone song “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which is a great up-tempo song, and Rudy actually loved that song. But the feeling and the point of the whole movie almost is that other Sly Stone song, which doesn’t have a quite upbeat enough tempo, “Everybody is a Star.” Definitely the sentiment of that would have been perfect for our movie.
Can you talk about the old and new instrumental music in the film?
Karaszewski: It’s amazing how much of the movie drifts from the new soundtrack into parts of the old “Dolemite” soundtrack, because it’s pretty seamless at times.
Alexander: I was on the set when they were shooting the recording of the “Dolemite” theme song with Craig Robinson and all the horn players, and it was great to hear the song from 1975 now being done with a bigger sound than they could afford back then, but still the ‘70s (style) horns. Craig (Brewer) would call cut, but the band would keep playing, and now they’re just riffing on the “Dolemite” theme because it’s such a good, catchy tune.
There’s a duet between Eddie and Da’Vine Joy Randolph that takes place in the juke- joint of our dreams.
Brewer: That’s “The Ballad of a Boy and Girl,” from the album “Eat Out More Often,” and it’s the song that I have Lady Reed and Rudy sing on the chitlin circuit. When I first heard that song, it felt so country, and so out of the realm of what would usually be in this movie filled with soul. But it was so funny, and reminded me a little bit of “Time’s a Wastin’” by June Carter and Johnny Cash. It was a very quick way to establish that these two are collaborators and good friends making music, but more so, making people laugh.
Could you talk about Scott Bomar’s original score?
Brewer: I love the original score of “Dolemite.” But Scott did a really great job by taking all these older Stax and Hi Records musicians in Memphis, Tennessee, and we met at Royal Studios, where the place is still exactly as it was back in the day when Al Green and Ann Peebles were recording. After I first read the script, Larry, Scott and I sat down and talked about one challenge being that we’ve got to tell a lot of story quickly, and we’re going to be dealing a lot with what I call the M-word: montage. This can go really wrong with a movie, and we’re already probably going to get criticized that we’re doing it a lot, so we have to craft the montages in such a way that they’re exciting and move the story forward, so it’s not just us taking a break to say, “Oh, and now they’re putting out an album.” We’re telling the story with those sequences in this very fast way that needs to almost feel like it’s in Rudy’s rhythm —which meant soul, which meant high-hat, which meant wah-wah guitars, which meant horn section, which meant then start bringing in the strings. That’s what’s great about all that music from the blaxploitation area: If the civil rights movement embraced gospel songs, the counterculture embraced soul. That was their music — strong and full of attitude — and we needed that component in this movie for it to feel right.
I feel like almost any movie could benefit from a blaxploitation-type score. Thankfully, o course, it was appropriate for this film.
Brewer: [Laughs.] Can you imagine “Ad Astra” if Isaac Hayes did it? I think it would be mind-blowing. I really do.
As director, did you give any unusual instructions for the score?
Brewer: I told Scott Bomar that I wanted him to treat the score for “Dolemite Is My Name” as if it were a little bit of like a superhero movie. I wanted there to be a “Rudy theme,” just like there would be a Luke Skywalker or Captain America theme.
Scott Bomar: The theme to “Superman” was definitely a reference for this film. With the melody that we call the Rudy theme, the first time we hear it is in the beginning of the film where he’s creating the character and experimenting with the comedy routine; by the end of it, with the music building, he’s pulling a wig out of a box in the closet, and when the wig is revealed, that’s where we first hear this theme. It’s used a few times throughout the film, and then the last time we hear it is at the end when they’re going to the premiere; when Rudy steps out of the limo, that’s where the Rudy theme is fully developed. And, definitely, the reference there was the theme from “Superman.”
Another interesting reference to another film in relation to the score is in the sex scene. At the beginning of it, there are these great shots that cut to the different actors — Wesley (Snipes), Eddie and Da’Vine. Craig’s reference for the score there was the scene in the third “Star Wars” film, where they’re on the skiff with Jabba the Hutt and about to get thrown into the sarlacc pit, and the camera cuts to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. When Craig told me that, I’m like, “Oh, okay, I understand exactly what you’re talking about.” I actually pulled that scene up and watched it. Craig and I are both huge fans of John Williams, so his work is frequently a reference for both of us.
Is it safe to say there’s a big Memphis influence to the score?
Bomar: I would say any Memphis influence that’s in the music is through the influence of the film scores that Isaac Hayes did. Isaac, who was a very big influence and mentor to Craig and I both, was in “Hustle and Flow.” When we were recording the score for that film, Isaac came to the session, and when he left, he said, “You’ve been blessed by Moses.” I feel like that blessing has continued into this project, because he would have really loved this. We use three of the musicians on the score who were in his group who played on the scores to “Shaft,” “Tough Guys” and “Truck Turner”: Willie Hall (on drums), Lester Snell (on keys) and Michael Toles (on guitar).
Brewer: Yeah, the great Willie Hall. Have you seen “Blues Brothers”? He was the drummer in that movie, and he’s got that great line: “Jake Ellwood, so glad you’re out of prison. You got the money you owe me, mother—er?” He did the famous high-hats in “Shaft,.”
Bomar: We also had Fred Wesley come in and play trombone on the score, and he was a member of the JBs and collaborated with James Brown on the blaxploitation film scores that he composed. Beyond that, there were so many other scores of that era that influenced me on this, particularly a lot of the work of Quincy Jones. Lalo Schifrin’s scores for the Clint Eastwood films and Bruce Lee films that he did in the ‘70s in particular were another really big influence.
Brewer: There’s something about the spirit of Memphis music that has always helped me in making a movie, and it’s how Stax Records was built out of an abandoned movie theater, and their equipment was really old and not state of the art. It’s something about how that they used it in a certain way and didn’t apologize for it; they celebrated it. That’s something that I try to remind myself of more as I get into movies with bigger budgets, where all these bells and whistles aren’t going to mean a damn thing unless you really find the heart of this moment. That has nothing to do with budget and size or equipment; it has everything to do with the beating heart behind something. So to me, all the music that Sam Phillips made at Sun Studio with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and BB King, it’s that same spirit.
It’s fun that you have such a realistic period record store portrayed in the film, which isn’t always something the movies get right.
Brewer: We could have built that record store anywhere, but we found an old record store (Poo-Bah in Pasadena) and put it in there. We even built that little (DJ) booth. And I actually don’t think they changed it back.
Karaszewski: If you do a little bit of Googling, there is a lot of great background about the real Dolphin’s of Hollywood. It’s such a fascinating store. There were two Dolphin’s of Hollywoods (one of which was actually in Hollywood), but we were sort of recreating the one on Central Avenue. It was the preeminent black music store of the era. It had its own little radio station (as portrayed with Snoop as DJ). I believe at times it was open 24 hours a day. There were certain iconic businesses of black Los Angeles, and Dolphins of Hollywood has that status; we certainly did justice to the Dunbar Hotel, too. With the Dunbar, it’s Billie Holiday and Count Basie and Duke Ellington — this is where these guys would play and would stay, and Rudy ended up living there for like a decade or so.
At the end of the film, with the kid coming up to Rudy at the premiere and rapping at him, it’s pretty explicit about making the connection between then and now.
Karaszewski: At one point when we were talking about doing the film, we were going to actually try to take it all the way into the ‘80s, because it was important to us to acknowledge at the end that Rudy was considered kind of the grandfather of rap. When we decided to make the movie more about the making of “Dolemite,” we knew we couldn’t get there. So it was like, how do we show that? And coming up with that scene with the young boy, I think we’re quite happy with how that actually shows that people who grew up listening to Rudy Ray Moore records grew up to be rappers. He’s literally tossing the baton to a future generation.