TALK TO ME
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
“Wake up, Goddammit!”
These are the words that open the film Talk To Me, and they resonate with multiple meanings throughout the tangled drama that follows. Talk To Me is purportedly a biopic exposing the electrified ups and downs of the unsung east coast radio personality Ralph 'Petey' Greene (Don Cheadle). The truth of the matter is that it's a dual biography, for the script (penned by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa) is just as focused on the world of Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a stiff radio businessman who worked for the soul station WOL in Washington DC.
Whereas Petey is a street-smart, shit-talking deejay who plies his trade behind a mic that's also behind the bars of Lorton Reformatory, Dewey is his opposite – a cracker in disguise who fraternizes with a white boss (Martin Sheen, played for numerous laughs with his uptight behavior) and despises his own imprisoned brother for his weakness of character and inability to rise above the ghetto lifestyle. Greene would rather be Huey Newton. Hughes would rather be Johnny Carson.
Both men are guilty of underestimating the other. Dewey writes off the jock as a waste of time, as he cannot allow himself to see prisoners as anything other than human garbage. Petey accuses Dewey of being a prissy uptown boy with no connection to urban reality (he calls him ‘Mister Tibbs', comparing his proper etiquette to that of actor Sidney Poitier). Though soon enough they recognize that each man possesses certain qualities the other lacks, and form a partnership that leads to seemingly instant success.
The film is unique in that it is clearly split into two halves (the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being the dividing line), and the first section is playful and funny as all hell. Petey is released from prison after talking a fellow inmate down from a shoddy attempt at a suicide jump (he later reveals that it took him months to convince the con to get up there in the first place), and hits the streets of Washington, DC with his lady Vernell Watson (Taraji P. Henson) at his side.
He's under the mistaken assumption that Dewey will immediately grant him an on-air job, which leads to an hysterically funny section of film where Petey (in full pimp-tastic garb) and Vernell clash with the staid authorities behind WOL. Sheen's executive E.G. Sonderling (renamed ‘Blue Blazes' after one of his favorite exclamations) is interested in ratings, but not controversy. His hot jocks at the moment are the smooth sounding cheese of Vondie Curtis-Hall's Sunny Jim and the very Barry White-esque burly lothario “Nighthawk” Bob Terry (Cedric The Entertainer).
Dewey proves to be a slow learner, but in time he grasps the concept that Petey's outrageous behavior nonetheless reflects the outlook of countless local radio listeners. He puts his career on the line by offering him a morning show that's eventually called 'Rapping With Petey' (Sheen repeatedly reminds the hotshot newbie not to cuss on the air). This early attempt at speaking to a mass audience leads to the type of nervous behavior displayed by Howard Stern in the film Private Parts (though instead of toppling audio carts and scratching records, Petey simply shouts the words “Call letters” before running off to vomit).
Once the nerves work themselves out and Petey becomes comfortable spitting knowledge to the invisible public, both his and Dewey's careers take flight. For those expecting a ‘nice' film loaded with classic Motown music, know that Petey dismisses Motown owner Berry Gordy as a pimp, and his legion of talented musicians as mere puppets dancing to his dollar-hued tune. The laughs keep rolling in during this interminable upswing, until the one-two punch of Vernell's revenge-laden infidelity and the news that Dr. King had been shot.
From this point on the film changes its tint, never to return to the giddy highs of the first half. Petey's career continues to grow, but he soon learns that it's a life that Dewey wants, not him. There's an effective segment as Petey holds an overnight audio vigil for Dr. King, and calms the rioting masses with messages of frustration, grief and patience. It's a remarkable moment that brings it all back home, regardless of whether or not you were alive at the time. Cheadle truly shines in this role, and from this point out he proves it again and again, exposing the darkness buried beneath the take-no-shit exterior.
Alcohol becomes a key element in Petey's downfall - for even while his public exposure inflates during a stint emceeing a James Brown concert in tribute of Dr. King, he appears loaded on stage. This gig leads to a growing multi-media monster, as Dewey pushes the man into stand-up comedy and later a television show. The inevitable breakdown occurs during a performance on The Tonight Show (though tweaked for dramatic effect), the ultimate example of Dewey living his dreams through Petey. At this point the latter man has found himself trapped in a snare much like the musicians of Motown.
The third wheel Vernell understands the man beneath the surface, and pleads with Dewey to let him do what he wants – to speak to the public behind closed doors, with the level of anonymity granted by the microphone and airwaves. It's a version of the classic tale of three people against the world, and how the best of times always give way to jealousy or pride sooner or later. It's also a love story of sorts about two men who need the other to paint a complete picture.
Talk To Me rises to the top tier in the genre of radio films, joining the likes of Pump Up The Volume, Good Morning, Vietnam and the previously mentioned Private Parts. Director Kasi Lemmons (The Caveman's Valentine) does a marvelous job recreating the sprawling time period (spanning from 1966 to 1984), and conjures solid gold performances from both Cheadle and the underrated Ejiofor. Their sublime performances should be honored come awards season if there is any justice in the world.
The story of 'Petey' Greene was a smart one to tell, for although over 100,000 mourners turned up at his funeral (some say the actual tally may be double that number), most of us have only an oblique knowledge of his legacy, if that. The world remembers Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor, but somehow Petey fell through the cracks – and perhaps he wanted it that way.
This film shows that The Dream comes with a price. That you may feel on top of the world and capable of doing anything you want, but there may be disastrous consequences for that freedom. Some viewers may miss the infectious good feeling from the first half, but the somber undertones that follow are true to life. If the world never fully recovered from the murder of Dr. King, neither should this film. And while most of this story takes place twenty to forty years ago, Petey's fervent insistence that we all “wake up” is a clarion call that will never become outdated.