Judge Patrick Bromley breaks out his leather jumpsuit and tries to remember life back when Eddie Murphy still did standup.
Catch him in the act.
I was around the age of eleven when Eddie Murphy Raw was making the rounds on home video, at which time the film was the equivalent of old Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor albums for me. I could only get a fix at my friends' houses, and only when their parents weren't around; that we knew we weren't meant to be watching it at that age only the made it that much more appealing—the Forbidden Fruit of VHS. We would replay our favorite bits, and quote the movie to one another constantly. The movie became our shorthand, and somehow gave us a justifiable license to swear like, well, Eddie Murphy. Long story short—it was the funniest thing this eleven-year old boy had ever seen. Re-visiting Eddie Murphy Raw after years away from it, I discovered something I found fairly shocking: it isn't very funny. When it comes to standup comedy, there's a fine line between the performer and the material that he/she is performing; in Raw, one works and the other doesn't.
Recorded live in 1987 at New York's Felt Forum, Raw captures Eddie Murphy at the height of his powers. Coming off a string of smash hits including Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, and Beverly Hills Cop II, Murphy was pretty much untouchable at the time Raw hit theaters, and the confidence success had given him is wholly on display. One only needs to see him at the start of the film, silhouetted against a red backdrop to the screams of a packed audience, then hitting the stage in his purple-leather jumpsuit (complete with black gloves and matching scarf) to see that Murphy all but invented the notion of comedian-as-rock-star. In fact, Raw may very well mark the transitional point in Murphy's career, showcasing the kind of vanity that would guide his choices throughout the next phase of his career (Harlem Nights, Another 48 Hrs.)—the same choices that would ultimately topple him from his peak at the height of the box office.
The Eddie Murphy of Raw—the one who had not yet learned humility at the hands of a stalled career—is an almost archaic beast; he's a comedy dinosaur, and the movie's not even twenty years old. It's not just the references to Mr. T, Brooke Shields, and The Cosby Show that date the film, it's the content and tone of Murphy's humor: the bulk of his material is decidedly homophobic and stunningly sexist. It's not that Murphy doesn't understand gays and women; it's that he fears and loathes them. Without attaching too great an anachronistic-PC reading to his routine, it's still a bit chilling that we once found the kind of hostile generalizations and offensive stereotypes found in Raw not only perfectly acceptable, but fall-down funny. The best comedy should be timeless, but the posturing and attitude that Murphy adopts in Raw pin both the comedian and the viewing audience down to a specific point in our cultural history, and it's not one to which we can easily go back. Underneath the messages Murphy's routine conveys, the topics he covers are almost amateurishly generic—the differences between men and women or between whites and blacks had been mined to death even before 1987, making much of the film not so much Raw as unoriginal. Murphy also seems wary of getting at all personal, as though the success he found throughout the '80s has left him guarded; when he finally does open himself up a bit, such as in an extended bit about his mother's homemade hamburgers, it makes for some of the movie's funniest moments. Otherwise, we're constantly aware that we're watching Murphy the Star, not Murphy the Man. His few references to his own life are too inaccessible to be funny—that is, unless you, too, have had a woman try to take half of your millions.
If Raw finds Eddie Murphy the Comedian off his game, it still finds Eddie Murphy the Performer at the top of his. I've long argued that Murphy is nothing short of brilliant as a comedic actor (look no further than 48 Hrs. or Trading Places for proof), but much less so when it comes to his standup. He's like the inverse of Chris Rock, who is possibly the best standup comic working today, but who can't be funny in a film even if his life depended on it—even when he's both the writer and director (e.g. Head of State, which was really just a remake of Murphy's The Distinguished Gentleman). Raw provides perhaps the best example of the split between the two elements—Murphy is gifted and hilarious as a performer, but not entirely successful as a comic. He manipulates every tool at his disposal, starting with his voice. More than just a gifted mimic (his impressions of Mr. T, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor are all uncannily spot-on), Murphy uses his voice to create characters throughout the performance, each to great effect. His priceless facial expressions—which one couldn't have seen in the live show, save for in the front row—are done great service by director Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle), providing one of the few cases where a film is likely preferable to the live experience. And though he's not much of a physical comedian, Murphy knows just the right ways to use his body to punch up a laugh—it's impressive how much mileage he gets out a little thing like swinging the microphone.
Paramount releases Eddie Murphy Raw as a featureless disc, with a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that's enhanced for 16x9 playback. As far as video quality goes, this disc doesn't rank with the best—the print used has definitely seen better days; a great deal of grain, dirt, and other artifacts are visible throughout. The colors hold up fairly well, with black levels retaining most of their depth (it's a good thing, too, as large sections of the stage Murphy performs on are often in total darkness). The Dolby surround track wisely delivers all of Murphy's performance in the front and center channels, leaving the crowds' laughter in the rear speakers. It's a choice that pays off, and adds to the feeling that you're right there in the Felt Forum. That Townsend boldly opts never to cut to an audience reaction shot (I can't think of another concert film that's done that) also helps; the camera is focused solely on Murphy from the second he hits the stage. It really is his show.
That I don't find Eddie Murphy Raw nearly as funny as I once did is a clear indication that my sensibilities have changed. I'd like to think they've improved with age and experience, which is probably for the best—there are enough grown men with the comedic tastes of an eleven-year old out there that the world hardly needs one more. As for Eddie Murphy? Well, after over a decade of nearly constant mediocrity on screen, it's time for him to seek new representation. Too many of the films he's done in since Raw have been either lowbrow kiddie fare or "high-concept" special effects comedies; in either scenario, his considerable talents wind up buried. Even if Raw isn't entirely successful, it does remind us of how great Eddie Murphy once was, and just how truly, truly funny he can be.
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