If you have never been to Fantastic Fest, you may not know they have “secret screenings.” The idea is that audiences pack into the theater, unsure what they’re about to watch. Last year’s secret screening was the Suspiria remake, and throughout the festival, there is some speculation about what we’re about to see. Some folks thought it would be The Joker, or maybe the sequel to Zombieland.
Once we assembled into the cinema, we already had a good idea of what we’re about to see. Volunteers were giving away the same beer they gave away for the other Netflix premieres, so we knew the film would be another Netflix original. Part of me hoped the screening would be El Camino, the upcoming Breaking Bad movie, but it ended up being Dolemite Is My Name, the new biopic from Craig Brewer. It turned out to be the perfect screening, just not in a way I expected.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to see 48 Hours in the theater. Eddie Murphy was barely twenty-one when it came out, so here you have this hilarious, fast-talking kid who seemingly improvises his way through dangerous situations. The film has not aged particularly well, but the film was an announcement of Murphy as major talent (he received a Golden Globe nomination for the performance). Murphy’s struggled in this lately, whether it’s his singing career or duds like Norbit. Dolemite is a return to form – he has so many great one-liners, it’s hard to keep track of them all – he might even get his first Oscar nomination for the role.
He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling entertainer in the 1970s who remains convinced he deserves greatness. After experimenting with his act, he comes up with “Dolemite,” a comic, jive-talking persona who borrows from the Blaxploitation happening in the periphery of his life. Despite some modest success among the hip urban crowd, that’s not enough for Moore. His solution? He decides to make a Dolemite movie. He recruits a director (Wesley Snipes), a screenwriter (Keegan-Michael Key), and finds some film students for the more technical roles.
Dolemite Is My Name has a familiar structure. It’s all about a group of misfits who, against all odds, get together to make something worthwhile. The script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski mostly revolves around everyone’s disbelief in Moore, who curses in nearly line of dialogue, pushing and cajoling everyone to help realize his vision. In one of the best scenes, Moore has to film his big sex scene, and since he’s too nervous to play it straight, he works with his director and cinematographer to play the scene for laughs. The film within the film has touches of Ed Wood (e.g. corny dialogue and cheesy special effects), but Moore’s charisma and self-awareness stop it from being a total disaster. By the time Moore and his entourage show up at their big premiere, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.
One ironic thing about Dolemite Is My Name is how it focuses on the movies as a communal experience. Moore is acutely aware of how movies can bring people together, and much is made of seeing his name on a marquee. I cannot help but wonder what he would think of Netflix, a platform that would allow fans to see his film from the comfort of their homes. Since the film premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, Fantastic Fest was effectively the first time an American audience saw the film. Most folks who see it will not have the fun I had, even with a limited theatrical run, since Netflix deters the communal experience Moore embraced.
The second secret screening at Fantastic Fest was The Lighthouse, a weird horror/thriller that’s more a conventional fit for what the festival typically shows. At first, I was mildly disappointed that I was getting a “feel-good” biopic, instead of something weird and/or disturbing. But as I was watching, the film started to work for me and I realized I couldn’t ask for a better crowd to see Dolemite Is My Name. If you’re interested in it all, you won’t regret the cost of a ticket. It opens theatrically in October.